09 April 2012


I shadowed a specialist who could have made it as a comedian. In the back room where the physicians and residents write out their patient charts, he cracked jokes about everything from matzah to Taco Bell chalupas to male-pattern baldness. It made the day much brighter.

What makes having comedy during the workday so pleasant is the heavy nature of the job. A different day, while shadowing a different physician, I was at a patient's bedside when the doctor intimated that she would need to be on a ventilator for life. The patient was anguished. It was rather sad. Yet once we exited the room the doctor and I went back to our previous conversation, about basketball. After all, what's the alternative? Being sad all day? Not many of that physician's patients recover from their illnesses. He constantly gives patients bad news.

Good doctors (and good people) must have empathy. But having too much empathy or having it too often is disabling. So part of medical training is learning how to harness and structure one's empathy, in the same way that a wrestler learns to limit his violent tendencies to his time in the ring, or a soldier learns to limit his anger to the battlefield. It's an odd demand, in that we are expected to be superhuman at times, and almost inhuman at others.