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One of the interesting things about being in medicine is that friends and family consult you with all kinds of medical questions at any time. The questions span speciality (I was asked about a brain tumor, cramping and a bad cough in the same week!) Honestly, I enjoy it: it’s like an unplanned case of the day, and it’s a chance to be helpful. In many cases, I can simply put someone at ease. The movie “Dead Poet’s Socity” spoke about two kinds of professions, the “life sustaining” ones like medicine and engineering and the “life enriching” ones like literature, music and the fine arts. My reward in Acting was to (ideally) give my audiences a meaningful emotional experience by the end of the play through the life of my character, that is enrichment. In medicine, my reward is to use medical knowledge and skills to help patients feel better, sustainment. So, I appreciate the inquiring phone calls and texts and I would like to take you back to one in particular . . .

Last week, my sister texted me, concerned that her daughter (my ridiculously cute niece:) had a high fever and a cough. As I gathered the history and started working through the mental algorithms for what could be wrong, I happened to catch my niece’s voice in the background. She simply asked “What is that?” I think I have may have gotten more information from that audio signal than almost anything else in her story. Why? People who feel very sick are not curious. One of the things we learned in evaluating pediatric fever is that the exact tempertature is not as important as how the child appears. That takes observation, attention. I appreciate that because it feels clinical. A computer can work through algorithms but a only a clinician can be a medical Sherlock Holmes and notice personal, intangible atrributes that crack the “case.”

Paying attention matters not only in diagnosis but treatment. While on a neurosurgery service last year, I encountered a patient who required an operation to remove a brain tumor. Due to the tumor size and location, the patient had a devastating choice, to either lose the ability to read or to hear on that side, depending on which surgical approach was taken. Losing hearing or reading is more than a medical choice, it is a human one. One must ask the difficult question of which option would reduce one’s sense of self more profoundly. This question is approached by a patient who pays real attention to who she is, as well as family members and yes, doctors, who have done the same. No matter our profession, we will learn the same algorithms: law students learn the law, pharmacy students learn the drug mechanisms, but effective decision making in the grey areas seems to reward those who pay close attention to the nuances that no curriculum can adequately capture. Even in the enrichment professions, the actor who not only knows the lines but pays attention to the demands of the performance moment will respond with that spontaneous artistic choice that we recognize as brilliance . . .

By the way, I think we made the right call on my niece. She is doing well . . .

 

Comments
  1. Malaika says:

    Loved this post JB! And of course, it was so nice to see Namz being featured! I enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes reference and how you made connections between acting and the practice of medicine. I also liked your point that it takes that human touch to come up with conclusions that computers cannot. Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Poetic Liberty says:

    I love, Sherlock Holmes, attention to detail is crucial!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anne Frantz says:

    Another endorsement about paying attention to details. At least in the culture in which I was raised, a “good prognostic indicator” as to how a female patient was recovering in the hospital was if she had applied some makeup and begun to fuss about the appearance of her hair. When critically ill, all those seemingly superficial concerns vanish but once you start turning the corner toward health, you’d better be certain that a brush and a makeup bag were nearby (there are exceptions of course but I think the odds in Vegas would highly favor the desire to look more presentable). I know I’m not the only woman who has a pact with a BFF on this one [seriously!] but if I wound up on a ventilator my BFF knows what grooming must be maintained so that when the sedatives were eliminated and ET tube removed, the fright of my appearance wouldn’t kill me! The same applies if she were similarly incapacitated. You may laugh but women and our attention to appearance is formidable. In addition we make a serious dent in helping keep the economy afloat with our attention to these matters and all the services and products purchased in pursuit…….Good to hear about your neice!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Again, I had the pleasure of discussing this with you in person, but it bears repeating that it matters to notice the details that we deem “non-clinical” but may be the most important markers of all. Thank you for thoughtful response-may your pact never be necessary to enact!

      Like

  4. Kenel says:

    Jonathan,

    I realize this post was written over the summer, but I just read it entirely and what another fantastic post! This post was humanized (the charming pediatric patient notwithstanding) in a way computer algorithms never can. Or that, the brute calculation of the latter is still a far cry from the clinician’s investigative tool, differential analysis, that injects a dose of empathy in the practice of medicine. ,

    This, even as computer algorithms are sine qua non of medicine in developed countries. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

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