Friday, August 16, 2013

A Review of @danielleofri What Doctors Feel

When I started residency in July of 1999, I felt confident that I was doing my life’s work. I came to the hospital early the first morning. The chief physician brought me to the third-year resident who was covering the patients who would become mine. This was the resident’s last day of training. I will never forget the phrase my chief used when introducing him.

He said, “This is John. You’re taking his patients. Today is his last day of residency. He can’t be hurt anymore!”

My thoughts raced. What did he mean “can’t be hurt”? Who was hurting him? And why couldn’t he be hurt anymore? Unfortunately, I would eventually learn.


In What Doctors Feel:How Emotions Affect The Practice of Medicine Danielle Ofri plays us like a celebrated cello concerto.


In the beginning she caresses the strings softly, piano. Her fingers dance around the definition of empathy . Her stories (the rape victim and the cockroach, the patient with ulcers incompatible with life)are the vibrato giving color and nuance. The pace is still humble, andante, as she asks if we can build a better doctor. This is Danielle the scientist. She delves into notable clinicians and teachers, and touches on studies of how empathy affects patient care.


The volume grows as we enter the chapter "Scared Witless". Here we encounter the complexities of physicians as fallible human beings. She struggles with her first chance to run a code, stumbles over a forgotten psyche consult, and trembles at a missed life threatening diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism. She describes the fallout of medical errors:

There's no easy answer about how to proceed onward in daily medical life with the ongoing churn of anxiety and fear, and certainly no research to guide us. Each doctor has to come to terms with it and negotiate an individual emotional armistice.

Forte Fortissimo

The thrum becomes loudest and most persistent In a "Daily Dose of Death". Here we meet Eva and learn of her heartbreaking experiences as a pediatric resident. Ofri transitions from the calm cool scientist to the impassioned story teller. Although the narrative is always controlled, the reader is punched in the belly by the raw staccato jabs. She follows with "Drowning" where we see the poor coping mechanisms Joanne (and so many other physicians) use to deal with burnout.


In "Under The Microscope" we come full circle with a discussion of malpractice and the physician psyche. Both the scientist and story teller intertwine. Piano, fortissimo, vibrato. We at last learn of the ultimate outcome for Julia, the heart failure patient, whose story meandered through the chapters and set the overall tonality.

We end where we began, not doctor and patient, but two human beings traveling the same lonely road.


I only have a minor criticism for this wonderful book. My quip is that Ofri refuses (and this may be her true brilliance) to name the emotion that kept coming to mind as I read. She answers the question posed by the title with such words as fear, shame, grief and anger. Yet I can only imagine she purposefully uses pain sparingly.


As a physician, pain is the apparition that hides behind the closet door of my nightmares. Pain is what I felt when I told the three unsuspecting women that their father died knowing that I had fumbled in the ICU with the intubation. Pain is what drove my chief resident on my obstetrics rotation to break down after standing by helplessly as a mother stabbed in the neck, and her unborn baby, died. Pain is realizing that you are not the hero you hoped you would become, and that medicine is opaque, murky, and just plain messy at best.

The chief physician from my residency program had it all wrong.

I too felt at the end of my training that I couldn't be hurt anymore. I was drowning in the steely leather of self protectionism. But then in October of 2004 my world radically changed with the birth of my son. When I looked into his eyes looking back at me with complete trust, the barriers that I had erected since those horrible days of residency came down. I could cry again. I didn’t have to shield myself anymore. And I began to understand the meaning of empathy.

It is only when we allow the pain to flow through us unhindered and mix with the joy and awe, that we are truly free. Danielle realized this much earlier in her career then I did. Not only friendship and caring, but pain is the tie that bound her to her beloved patient with heart failure, Julia. In hurting she transcended the physical barrier and truly walked a mile in Julia's shoes. This may be the greatest gift that any doctor can give a patient. This is empathy, the jump that allows us to pass over "doctor" and become "healer"


You want to know what doctors feel?

You have kindly read my feeble opinions.

You want a more nuanced and articulate view?

Read the book!

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