By Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising
A big thank-you to everyone in the F&M and Lancaster communities who came out last Thursday to see Dr. Danielle Ofri speak at Common Hour! And thanks to the Center for Liberal Arts & Society and the Benjamin Rush Pre-Health Honor Society for their help in making her visit possible. For anyone who was interested in her talk, “Why Would Anyone Want to Become a Doctor?,” but couldn’t make it, the Common Hour website now has the event available for viewing.
At the center of nearly all of Dr. Ofri’s work is the doctor-patient relationship. It is a common thread running from her most recent book, What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, and you can follow it back through her other titles as well (Incidental Findings, Medicine in Translation, Singular Intimacies). It is in fact the reason we place Dr. Ofri among a small, unique class of “doctor-writers,” writers who both criticize and celebrate the complexities of clinical medicine and remind us—quite powerfully—that caring is a big part of curing.
In What Doctors Feel, Dr. Ofri runs the whole gamut of emotions. “It is our inner landscapes that need to be tended to,” she writes, referring specifically to the need for defusing the shame associated with medical error, but making a statement that applies to many aspects of the physician’s life, and much of her writing. Shame, fear, empathy, compassion, frustration, stress, grief, curiosity, disillusionment, the drive for self-improvement, and even perfection—these are all emotions that sometimes propel, sometimes hold back, the healthcare provider’s ability to provide care. When I ask pre-med students why they want to become doctors, they often respond, “Because I love science and I want to help people.” Much time during the pre-health years is spent on the science part. In my view, Dr. Ofri’s work should be a required textbook for the other part of the journey.
There are many powerful moments in What Doctors Feel. Her relationships with her patients provide story after story, and yet you never feel she is exploiting, but rather celebrating, the special intimacy that she is privileged to experience as a physician. I appreciate the author’s transparency when it comes to talking about her not-so-proud moments with patients, the times of question, doubt, even error. I also appreciate her candor and vulnerability, and finished the book wishing more than ever that all doctors possessed these admirable characteristics. Ultimately, for Dr. Ofri, (and a handful of other doctor-writers, such as Abraham Verghese and Atul Gawande), writing becomes a way of making sense of the immense responsibility inherent in the care of fellow human beings. It’s rare that a doctor can find time to write anything more than prescriptions, even rarer that she has something to say that’s so universally interesting (we’re all patients, after all), and rarer still that she can write so well.