Doctors, Please Don’t Forget Your Summer Reading

I finally got around to reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things this summer, and I couldn’t help thinking what I thought when I read Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and countless others. That is, “I hope doctors will read this.” I have not encountered many truer depictions of grief than what Alma Whittaker experiences when she learns of the death of Ambrose Pike:

There is grief below grief, she soon learned, just as there are strata below strata in the ocean floor—and even more strata below that, if one keeps digging…. There is a level of grief so deep that it stops resembling grief at all. The pain becomes so severe that the body can no longer feel it. The grief cauterizes itself, scars over, prevents inflated feelings. Such numbness is a kind of mercy.

What better required reading for physicians who daily attend to the victims of loss? I wish that the doctors who cared for my father at the end of his life had puzzled over Hanneke de Groot’s words on suffering:

“Well, child, you many do whatever you like with your suffering,” Hanneke said mildly. “It belongs to you. But I shall tell you what I do with mine. I grasp it by the small hairs, I cast it to the ground, and I grind it under the heel of my boot. I suggest you do the same.”

Hers is an exact description of how my father handled pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed just two weeks after the birth of his first grandchild, he only had six months to live, but never accepted his diagnosis. In fact, he denied it quite belligerently. But it didn’t mean he was ignorant or cruel. It would have taken an insightful physician to understand my dad’s grieving process, or at least a well read one.

Medical journals can only take one so far in becoming a great physician. There is an entire literary canon available to doctors in addition to their medical texts that can help them examine the deeper questions of their patients and ask better questions of themselves. Beautifully crafted characters and sentences can help all of us investigate the profundities of human experience. And physicians, as much or more than anyone, should be fluent in this practice. After all, it’s impossible to attend to the human body without eventually being baffled by an encounter with the human soul.

I hope that young doctors won’t leave behind a love for broad reading as they depart their undergraduate institutions to follow the rigorous path of doctoring. For an encounter like one with my dad, there may be only one sentence that matters.

Excerpts from Gilbert, Elizabeth, The Signature of All Things. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.

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