Public Release: 

Medicine can be inspiring and infuriating

Doctors share joys and frustrations in 'On Being a Doctor 3'

American College of Physicians

PHILADELPHIA, August 17, 2007 - Doctors' observations of their patients and everyday experiences in medicine can be inspiring, tragic, infuriating, funny, or poignant. The American College of Physicians, the nation's largest medical specialty organization, has published a compilation of stories, essays, and poems by doctors and their patients, "On Being a Doctor 3."

"Doctors tell of the often dysfunctional, sometimes wonderful, world we live in," write co-editors Christine Laine, MD, MPH, FACP, and Michael A. LaCombe, MD, MACP, in their introduction. "Reading these stories will help you see why, despite these challenges, most doctors would not dream of doing anything else."

Some stories depict particular patients (whose identities are protected) and others portray characters that are composites of people whom physicians have encountered in medical training, in practice, or in their daily lives. Other stores are written by patients themselves.

The writings first appeared in the On Being a Doctor section of the ACP journal Annals of Internal Medicine. Drs. Laine and LaCombe, who select and edit works for the section, chose 111 pieces for this third On Being a Doctor compilation. (The first two volumes were published in 1995 and 1999.)

The works are arranged into eight chapters: On Society and the World Around Us; On Becoming a Doctor; On Being a Patient; Balancing the Personal and Professional; Those Who Are Our Patients; On Aging; On Death and Dying; and Hospital, Health Systems, Contentions.

Some examples:

  • The patient in an Indian slum hospital who won't leave when discharged. The doctor can't understand why, until he sees the man's two children hidden under the bed, feasting on hospital food

  • The physician hugging her children and crying at the end of a workday that included being stuck by the needle of an HIV-positive patient. She instinctively pulls back, fearing a chance the virus could be transmitted through her tears

  • The closeted gay medical student who can't let on that he recognizes the AIDS patient on whom he and his colleagues are making hospital rounds

  • The doctor witnessing an epidemic of drug abuse who writes in the poem "OxyContin": "Top of her class / with nothing but promise ahead / until hi-jacked by / the torment of needle and spoon."; and

  • The "trouble with medical students," according to the poem of a mentoring physician, is "...they are young... full of possibility, full of questions you have stopped asking..."

In commenting on the continuing popularity of the On Being a Doctor section in Annals of Internal Medicine, Drs. Laine and LaCombe write, "Why is it that stories about illness and physicians attract such an eager audience" One reason is that diagnosing and treating disease often contains elements of high drama. Second, an aura of mystery often surrounds the medical profession. Lastly, many doctors themselves are wonderful storytellers."


About the Editors

Christine Laine, MD, MPH, Senior Deputy Editor of Annals of Internal Medicine, is a clinician, researcher, and medical educator who has worked in medical journalism for more than a decade. After receiving an undergraduate degree in writing at Hamilton College, she completed medical school at State University of New York at Stony Brook, internal medicine residency training at New York Hospital Cornell University Medical College, and fellowship training in general internal medicine and clinical epidemiology at Beth Israel Hospital Harvard Medical School. She is a clinical associate professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

Michael A. LaCombe, MD, MACP, has developed a career that blends writing with practicing medicine. He is a graduate of Harvard Medical School, has practiced medicine for over 30 years in rural Maine, and is former director of cardiology at Maine General Medical Center in Augusta. He is the author of "Medicine Made Clear: House Calls from a Maine Country Doctor" (Dirigo Press, 1989). Dr. LaCombe is working on two anthologies -- one of poetry, one of prose -- to be published in 2008.

To order "On Being a Doctor 3," visit the ACP Web site: List price is $29.95; ACP Members pay $25.95. The hardcover book has 384 pages.

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