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  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

Doctors Who Write Books

Marisa Guerin PhD -- February 12, 2018

I read a lot more nonfiction than fiction, and I choose what to read quite casually, based on recommendations I'm given or reviews that I come across. One of the areas I surprised myself to find interesting is the science and the humanity of medicine, and related topics like the human genome. (Personal note - I don't usually read to study, or even to retain most of the details! I read books like I visit the Barnes Museum in Philly -- as a pleasurable way to spend time contemplating amazing, beautiful, or fascinating things and letting them influence my perspective.)

A few years back I found myself mesmerized by "The Emperor of All Maladies" A Biography of Cancer" by physician Siddhartha Mukherjee. It was a masterfully-told story of the disease, the doctors and scientists who battle it and the politics and drama of the continuously-changing frontlines. It left me with sober respect for the apparently unending war between an insidious illness and the wiles of medicine and pharmacology. Surely there should be a sequel...

That experience prepared me to be interested in the same author's subsequent book, "The Gene: An Intimate History" -- likewise a fascinating dive into the science and mysteries of genetics. The author sheds light on the significance of the genome, the epigenome, and the clinical and ethical issues that accompany technical advances. Lots of "wow" and very provocative. Both books left me so appreciative of the talents of a clinician who is also a writer, putting the science of medicine into words and stories that the layperson like myself could understand and appreciate.

The most recent book by a physician that I read is a bit different -- less about the science and more about people. It was recommended by my friend Peggy K -- "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End" by Atul Gawande. It's an absorbing, compassionate book, patiently making the case that old age and final illnesses are not simply, or even mainly, medical episodes. The writer turns our attention instead to the special nature of human living in final years. With a humility I don't usually associate with eminent surgeons, he shares his own journey as he learns to listen to his patients and to collaborate with them in making possible the living they most value, even when they are very ill. It got my attention, I must say.

As I read this book, one thing I found myself grateful for was the personal experience of accompanying each of my parents in their final days through hospice care rather than hospitalization. Yes, one can be a role model even in how to prepare for leaving life. (I remember especially my Dad's peacefulness and his gentle wit. We had to laugh when he responded to the hospice nurse's comment "Joe, you are getting closer to the end"; he looked at her and said evenly, with a twinkle in his eye -- "And I think, so are you.")

The influence of Dr. Gawande's book leads me to what's next on my list; I have downloaded to my Kindle and plan to read "When Breath Becomes Air", an autobiographical account published posthumously of surgeon Paul Kalanithi's personal journey battling metastatic lung cancer at the age of 37. I expect it to be even less about medicine and even more about the beauty and tragedy of human life -- and I think that will be enough for the time being on this topic.

I must say I've wondered what this interest in mortality is telling me about my own perspective these days. Am I preoccupied with my own end of life? After some reflection, I don't think so. My own health is quite good all things considered, I have a full and happy life, and I am not especially concerned about the reality of my own eventual passing. However, as I have grown older I can't escape the heartache that comes because people I love are battling, or will some day be suffering from, serious illnesses that may or may not have medical solutions. I think my reading is prompted by the desire to understand and to better accompany my family and friends, in addition to how it informs my own horizon of life. I am grateful to the healers who are gifted also as writers. Thank you for lighting the paths.

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