Literature about medicine may be all that can save us

Andrew Solomon in The Guardian:

UntitledIt would seem to make sense that doctors start off with youthful emotion and then graduate to a self-protective distancing, but in his award-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, New York-based oncologist Mukherjee likewise speaks of being propelled willy-nilly into humanism: “I had never expected medicine to be such a lawless, uncertain world. I wondered if the compulsive naming of parts, diseases and chemical reactions – frenulum, otitis, glycolysis – was a mechanism invented by doctors to defend themselves against a largely unknowable sphere of knowledge.” Writing is a means to fight back against that defence. A doctor needs defences – but not too many. “It is an old complaint about the practice of medicine that it inures you to the idea of death,” Mukherjee writes. “But when medicine inures you to the idea of life, to survival, then it has failed utterly.” And elsewhere he observes: “Good physicians are rarely dispassionate. They agonise and self-doubt over patients.” He adds: “An efficient, thrumming, technically accomplished laboratory is like a robot orchestra that produces perfectly pitched tunes but no music.” Mukherjee chronicles his gradual revelation that while benevolence without discipline is an ineffective cure, precision without empathy is tone-deaf; his books, including the forthcoming The Gene: An Intimate History, can feel like overcompensation for the efficiency of his life as a physician.

How to bridge this gap? Part of it had to come from a study of what had gone before, but Mukherjee “had a novice’s hunger for history, but also a novice’s inability to envision it”. His books chronicle the emergence of that envisioning as he learned to reveal the vulnerability he shares with his patients. “Medicine … begins with storytelling,” he concludes. “Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it. Science tells its own story to explain diseases.” In other words, explaining what is going on is part of the treatment itself.

More here.