The Soul of a Doctor

During the past week, I became very interested in reading a book about how medical students deal with their first encounters with patients and what they experience being so close to the life-and-death situation. This book was called, “The Soul of a Doctor,” by Susan Pories MD, Sachin H. Jain, Gordon Harper MD, and Jerome E. Groopman MD. It essentially is a compilation of essays written by fellow students of Harvard Medical School, divided into four sections: Communication, Empathy, Easing Suffering and Loss, and Finding a Better Way. It targets aspiring medical and pre-medical students to capture moments in the lives of actual medical students who have to assess all these patients, ranging from slightly ill to terminally ill.

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In the Foreword of the novel, Jerome E. Groopman, MD, makes a connection between the themes in literature to medicine. He describes that in literature, there’s a person that goes on a journey and that there is a stranger that comes to town. Likewise, in medicine, the person is the patient, accompanied by the doctor and the stranger is the illness that disrupts the equilibrium of life. Similarly, Sachin H. Jain makes a connection between the political science phenomenon of “social criticism” described by Micheal Walzer and the medical student in his Introduction of the novel. He states that the ideal social critic is someone who is embedded in society but is still able to apply external values to critiquing it. This is a crucial aspect to incorporate into medicine as well. He explains how the medical students are knowledgable about medicine but are still idealistic and have not yet been changed by the “norms of practice.” Another words, the medical student has a fresh perspective about the world of medicine and healing and is not affected by the habits other doctors may have. That is why the medical student may be able to effectively reflect on the health care system and uncover defects. That is why we want to hear from THEM in this book!

Delving into the first main concept of the book, Communication, a medical student named Amanda A. Munoz describes her worried patient and the little that doctors do to support. She talks about how the ideal patient-dcotor relationship is taught in classrooms and shown on videotapes in medical school, but it’s very hard to maintain that when everything is so fast-paced. A lot of times, doctors tend to place their efficiency, interests and performance over the patient’s feelings and questions. That in turn, leads to bad communication! This part of the book really stuck out to me because I always thought of the doctor actually comforting the patient and assessing their question(s) but never did I realize, that not all doctors think it’s necessary to do that!

The second concept discussed was Empathy, and in this section of the book,  a medical student named Rajesh G. Shah discussed how doctors can sometimes let their nature of prejudice get in the way of connecting with their patients and actually addressing their needs. Doctors may have preconceived notions about disorders such as anxiety and don’t consider it as a real, inhibiting condition, but when they actually see it occur in individuals, that completely changes their perspective. In this way, Rajesh G. Shah connected with his patient by learning from her condition and assessing her needs.

The third part of the book, Easing Suffering and Loss included numerous scenarios in which patients were extremely ill and perhaps living the last moments of their life, with only their doctors and a few loved ones. The important issue discussed in this section was that when doctors know that their patient doesn’t have much time, how can they ease suffering and loss? How can doctors assure their patients that they have been given the best care they can possibly recieve? How can doctors inform the loved ones that someone so close to them is going to die inevitably? These were some important questions that really got me thinking about how close one can get to the realm of mortality in the medical field.

The last section, Finding a Better Way, was mainly about the importance of ingenuity in medicine and started off with a remarkable quote by W.E.B. DuBois: “Education must not simply teach work- It must teach Life.” This quote is really significant because being pre-med and medical students, we can learn from older fellows, residents, and attendings, not just how to efficiently complete our tasks, but also to apply our knowledge to all aspects of our work and eventually form a bond with the patient we are dealing with. That is typically what, “The Soul of a Doctor” should constitute of. I know for some of us, it is way too early to even think about how patients should be treated or how their problems should be considered, but perhaps an important message to learn from this book would be this:

It is important to do the very best YOU can to provide the very best for the person YOU are caring for!

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a glimpse of what medicine today is really like and whether it is what they want to go into. If you are interested in checking out other books relating to the medical field, look over to the right in my goodreads section!

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