Reading Medical Memoirs: A Personal Essay About My Thesis

Jon Galla, June 2018

This past year, I wrote my senior thesis about medical memoirs. Despite its academic intention, the topic came out of a largely personal question that has plagued me since I began my pursuit toward medicine: what does it mean to write about other people, and why do we choose to read stories that display moments of vulnerability and intimacy? Let me tell you a story:

The genesis of this question starts from my own perspective as a premedical student in a humanities concentration. I would often find myself in conversation with an unwitting friend or stranger who would ask me about many of the physician-writers of our time: Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks, Abraham Verghese, the list is never-ending. I did not know how to respond to these bizarre requests. Of course, I would give a smile and a nod. Sometimes I would even add a brief, yet hopelessly vague interjection on the matter at hand. “I love him! Especially when he talks about the old man with a heart attack.” Replace ‘heart attack’ with ‘Parkinson’s’ for Sacks; ‘Parkinson’s’ with ‘AIDS’ for Verghese. Author Unknown? ‘Cancer.’

Upon coming up with this formula, I realized that there was something rather common to these narratives. We read about other people out of curiosity, and perhaps, illness arouses a curiosity within us that goes beyond the everyday. Though we may focus on the stories of those affected by illness, what happens on the other side? When you think about it, it seems strange to think that one profession would have such an allure but not others. Rarely do we see best-selling memoirs of other professions gain such prominence. This manifests in other ways too. Turn on your TV, and you will be hard-pressed not to find a medical drama broadcast in the next few hours. Grey’s Anatomy, Code Black, ER. Alarms go on and off, and medical personnel fly through hallways and dark, crowded rooms illuminated by the blue light of a monitor as a code is called. I never understood why on television, medicine happens in a dark room filled with adrenaline–the perfect setting for a needle stick, or another simple mistake.

Yet I am not alone in this deep seated suspicion of medical dramas. My mother is the perfect example of this. An avid fan of Grey’s Anatomy, she is enthralled by the chaos and emotion on screen. “Obviously this is fake,” she always says to me. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch.” We turn to the classic dilemma of the arts. For some people, art becomes life. But for others, life becomes art. The quest for realism is at the center of almost all medical memoirs and related works that I read for my thesis, and the consequences for this realism was the path I followed in my research. But for a moment, I will make space for what that realism is, and what it means to me.

~

“What is it really like to be a doctor?” I said to myself, flipping through the pages of Being Mortal.

“Am I going to think this way in 10 years? Am I going to lose a part of myself?”

~

Realism is present in the moments when the narrative does not run as expected. Realism is what haunts us when we read about the man who slowly loses his vision and has nothing to say, only tears. It is when we are faced with the painfully mundane.

Medical memoirs allow readers to embrace the realism absent in medical dramas. They allow us to take in the sorrow of a failing heart, the joy of delivering a baby, and more importantly, all the moments in between, hopelessly ambiguous and void of a higher meaning. Thinking back to my mother, I wonder how she could compare medical memoirs to medical dramas and what purpose each serves.

As realism takes hold, we find ourselves reading about actual people. These are the questions that had animated me for the past year. Why would we choose to read and write about those who are vulnerable? Whose stories deserve to be told, and whose deserve to be protected from public knowledge? There are no simple answers. Reading the works of gifted physician-writers, I realized that many of these authors felt uncomfortable about how they shared their patients’ stories. Anything but lightly made, the decision to write about actual, vulnerable people reflects a higher cause of which an exposure of privacy is a risk worth taking.

Reflecting back on my work, I wonder what holds for my own vulnerability and how I share it. Writing this very essay provoked a process of self-reflection that I had not engaged with in a long time. I do not know who I will be in five or ten years, let alone whom I will care for. Will I feel differently about people’s right to feel represented and understood? Or will I become one of the very people I criticize, writing to the public about “interesting cases” with greater resemblance to a freak-show than an educational opportunity? We must make our own choices, vulnerable or not.

Image credit: Luke Best

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