January 2011

Past Medical History

Donald Stewart

My career in medicine began when I was three years old.
Holding tightly to my father’s hand at the end of a dark hospital corridor, I couldn’t keep up with the heavy, sibilant stream of conversation flowing between Daddy and Dr. Mashburn, the man who had delivered me, who had sewn up my chin after I’d slipped in the bathtub a month before and who was now explaining the details of Mommy’s condition. Something, I knew, was making her bad. Sometimes her arms and her back hurt so much she couldn’t even pick me up.
My attention slipped away from the confusing drone of grown-up words and fixed on a bright black-and-white picture shining down from a lighted box on the wall. The “x-array” film clearly showed a gleaming white shaft of bone (my mother’s clavicle, a word unknown to me at the time) with a perfectly round, dark spot in the middle. One day I would understand this spot to be a hole in my mother’s skeleton. Such x-ray findings were evidence of eosinophilic granuloma, a disease that causes white blood cells to multiply and clump together at various points in the body. This illness was the …

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A Medical School Professor Calls It A Day

Neal Whitman

First Grade, long ago:
The bell was rung.
School’s out.
The Last Day of School!

A lie, of course.
The end of summer proved it so.
But today truly is
My Last Day of School. 
Today I retired:
took my last breath
as a professor.
But what had I professed?
First, that a preceptor without example is a vain thing. 
True teachers dare to be exemplars.
Second, that inspiration is an active process.
A principle of respiratory physiology,
but also a precept of pedagogy.
Finally, a variation of the Shaker saying–
Every breath a prayer.
Every breath a lesson.

About the poet:

Neal Whitman is a University of Utah School of Medicine Professor Emeritus now living in Pacific Grove, California, where he tootles around the Monterey Peninsula in a white hatchback with the auto plate “PG POET” set in a frame inscribed “Poetic License.” Since retiring from academic medicine in 2008, he has published over 300 Western-form and haiku poems. Neal and his wife, Elaine, collaborate on another Japanese art form, haiga, which combines imagery with haiku; Elaine’s photography and Neal’s haiku have been published in several journals and are featured in Pacific Grove’s weekly newspaper Cedar Street Times to …

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Tryst With The Microscope

Reeta Mani

“So what kind of doctor are you?” asks my new neighbor, peering curiously at the MD degree on my visiting card.

“I’m a microbiologist,” I tell her. “I work in the lab and help clinicians to diagnose infectious diseases.”

Her questioning look fades. “So you don’t see patients?”

“No,” I answer. “I don’t have to interact closely with patients, except in a few cases.”

She reflects for a moment, then says, “It’s good in a way. You can help them, but you don’t have to witness their pain and suffering up close.”

I agree. In fact, that was one of the biggest reasons why I decided to specialize in microbiology. (In India, after graduating from medical school you can go straight into a three-year residency in microbiology; in the US, you can do a microbiology fellowship after completing a residency in pathology.)

I gained admission to the microbiology residency by describing my “fascination with microbes” and talking about how “infectious diseases are our country’s leading killer.” Later, though, I sheepishly confided to my sister the most important reason why I’d chosen a laboratory-based specialty: I was faint-hearted. 

I’d worked with numerous patients during my internship, and my colleagues …

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The Calling

Lawrence Dyche

I am a non-physician who teaches physicians. A clinical social worker by training, I help doctors learn to be more compassionate and skilled in their human interactions. I sit in with residents as they see their patients. I help them to become better listeners, I remind them that as they touch the body they also touch the soul, I emphasize the enormity of witnessing. And after two decades of doing this work with innumerable students, I still regard the medical profession with awe–not simply the doctors but the calling, and the extraordinary way I’ve seen some people answer it.

Back in the Eighties, when I was beginning this work, I shadowed a resident for an entire day on the wards of a city hospital. Despite the years that have passed, my memory of that day remains vivid. 

Ann was in her second year of training in internal medicine. She was tall, with boyish hair, Gaelic freckles and a quick, self-effacing smile. Older than most of her peers, she had two school-aged children and was making the leap into medicine from a prior career in molecular biology. 

Though easily among the brightest in her class, she tended to be …

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