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fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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March 2012

Out of This World

Katelyn Mohrbacher

When I met Jasper, I was a third-year medical student doing a nine-month rural clerkship, and he was an eighty-year-old man in a coma.

Family members surrounded Jasper–a tall, broad-shouldered man–as he lay in the hospital bed. His wife, Esther, a petite, lively woman also in her eighties, stood by his head, grasping the bed rail. At the foot of the bed stood their son, a middle-aged man with a baseball cap on his head, his hands fisted in his pockets. Flanking the bed were his sisters (both nurses), one with curly hair and a baggy sweatshirt, the other slim and well-groomed. A warm summer breeze wafted through the room, bringing the scent of fresh-cut grass.

Jasper had been admitted two days earlier. In the days before that, Esther said, he had “drifted,” becoming quiet and very sleepy, and eating little. On admission, he’d been severely dehydrated and short of breath.

His two daughters had always hovered in attendance. Now one anxiously quizzed my supervising physician about her father’s sodium level. This led to a discussion of his care.

“I want everything possible done for him,” Esther said. Her children agreed.

In the days that followed, » Continue Reading.

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Physician, Heal Thyself

Randy Rockney

After a long day’s work as a pediatrician at an academic medical center in Providence, RI, nothing says “relief” like a visit to my therapist. I don’t see him often, but he has helped me through many life transitions. I think we both agree with the Buddhist precept that the only constant in life is change.

One evening after work, a couple of years ago, I arrived early in the neighborhood of my therapist’s office. I was hungry, but there wasn’t time for a meal, so I stopped at a pharmacy to peruse the snack aisle. The smallest and cheapest option available, a bag of roasted pumpkin seeds, seemed perfect.

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Common Thread

Peter de Schweinitz

One sunny afternoon during my fourth year of medical school, I spent a day assisting a New Yorker turned rural Southern podiatrist. As we whittled dead skin, checked pulses and scheduled minor procedures, an arrogant question formed in my mind: Why did you choose the feet instead of something more impressive, like the heart? 

Maybe he read my mind. Later, seeing me off to my car, he said, “I know that you medical doctors could do my job. I’m here so that you can do more important things.”

At the time, I didn’t know whether to pity his lack of aspiration or admire his humility. But a year later, when I was a primary-care intern, something happened that changed my perspective.

A patient I’d not met before, Carrie, had come for a post-operative wound infection on her ankle. This was the type of visit that irritated me–cleaning up for the specialist. 

Sitting on a chair in the exam room was a slender, sophisticated-looking young woman with short-cropped hair, sleekly manicured nails and horn-rimmed glasses. Normally, I would have asked her to hop

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The Silent Treatment

Frances Smalkowski

Last year, while enjoying a two-week tour of the cultural capitals of China, I was amazed by how at home I felt. Searching my memory for the reasons behind this unexpected state of mind, I suddenly remembered Mr. Loy.

We met more than forty years ago. I was in my third year as a nursing student, doing a semester-long rotation in a large psychiatric hospital. Each student was assigned a patient for the semester, and Mr. Loy was mine. 

We were expected to forge a therapeutic relationship with our patients. This was a tall order; most of our patients were diagnosed with some form of persistent schizophrenia, and few spoke in any coherent fashion, if they spoke at all. 

Mr. Loy was no exception. A short man in his late sixties with raggedly balding hair, he made frequent references to “the machine on my head.” His bald spots marked his attempts to remove the machine. The machine, he said, had commanded him to kill his son. Because he’d actually tried to do so, using a large knife, he’d been hospitalized as criminally insane. 

Before our first meeting, I read Mr. Loy’s medical history. Thanks to the psychiatric nursing

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