The College of Physicians & Surgeons is well known for its many contributions that have advanced science. What may be less known is P&S's contribution to the field of narrative medicine. P&S is not only the home of renowned doctor-scientists, but it is also the alma mater of many prestigious doctor-writers, including Dr. John Ransom Palmer, Dr. Jerome Groopman, Dr. Walker Percy and many others. In the Audubon bookstore are shelves of memoirs and narratives written by P&S alumni and faculty. By reflecting on the past and offering insights into the future, P&S authors offer inspiring advice for future doctors, like myself.
What does a doctor really think about when he or she is auscultating a patient's chest, lecturing to a class of 150 or on his 25th hour of being on call? Doctor's writings allow us to follow the transformation from clumsy premed student to respected physician, a path that medical students dream about. Doctor's writings may also help mold patients' impressions of his or her competence and compassion and may even influence whether the patient chooses that person as a physician. A doctor's literary work also may influence his or her colleagues' opinionsby reading about how the doctor diagnosed and bonded with patients and their families.
When I become a doctor-writer, I will have to make a choice about whether to write only about the triumphs, or also include the mistakes that I'll inevitably make along the way. I will be faced with the decision to incorporate or edit out the frustration that some patients suffer. But it seems to me that if a doctor is obligated to tell patients the truth, and a writer should be truthful in his or her art, then a doctor-writer's work should discuss both the successes and the failures of the profession. It is unfortunate though, that much more is often written about successful doctoring than about mistakes and obstacles. When I read literary pieces in medical journals, I often get the incorrect impression that most patients are cured and doctors can perform miracles. A lack of honesty about the realities of a doctor's capabilities may be one factor that has contributed to patients' unrealistic expectations about their treatment and also to misperceptions that can lead to exorbitant malpractice lawsuits.
Upon reading the stories in "On Doctoring," a book that we received as first-year medical students during our white coat ceremony, the most memorable and intriguing stories were not about miraculous healing, but about wrong diagnoses made, embarrassing moments, and difficult patients. These writings are how future doctors and interested readers can learn about the ups and downs of a doctor's life. They teach us how to avoid making the same mistakes and when to trust our own instincts. More importantly, they provide a more accurate reflection of a life in medicine.
As I set out on the road to becoming a doctor, I hope to cherish not only the patients who thanked me, but also those who gave me a hard time, because even they helped to shape me into becoming a good doctor. I hope to remember not only the professors who gave me good grades, but also those who pointed out my flaws, so I could learn to correct them. Finally, I hope to always be able to see patients as people, and not resort to describing their ailments in purely numerical or scientific terms. By tapping into the humanity of my patients, I believe I will become a more humane doctor. And understanding humanity is, after all, what inspired so many other doctors to put their pens to paper. Hopefully, all that I see and experience as a doctor will inspire me to do the same.
Elaine Wan'05 is a second-year medical student at P&S and co-president of Reflexions, P&S's literary magazine.