We are often powerless in the face of death or illness to do much besides watch; we are forced to recognize “the uselessness of love to give her breath.” This feeling of helplessness we experience, both as physicians and as caretakers, forces us to reevaluate the way we understand ourselves and the purpose behind the role we play as a family member or a healthcare provider.
Of course, the stakes are high—it’s the end of all things, the last chance, last glance, last words. All-or-nothing; last-ditch effort. A lifetime of apologies, love, and tenderness condensed into a prognosis of months, days, a few gasping breaths.
Surely, one of the best things about the practice of narrative medicine is that it allows doctors to reveal that they are just as human as the rest of us – capable of egregious mistakes as well as heroic deeds.
We learn in medical school to take full social, family and physical histories with a new patient. We use checkboxes to run down the list of points in each history. We are taught to be thorough and document each answer. Often though, between the checkboxes and lists, the patient’s story is forgotten.
There’s something you should know about your doctor’s clinical judgement: It relies on a flawed premise. As doctors, our medical education conditions us to look for patterns. Pattern recognition allows us to triage and identify emergencies. It helps us distinguish pulled muscles from heart attacks. It’s a powerful, if imperfect, tool.
Jenny Qi's poem first caught my attention because I carry two lines from Bob Hass: All the new thinking is about loss / In this it resembles all the old thinking. Death is the great equalizer, each of us must confront mortality.