03 October 2012

'Incidental Findings', by Danielle Ofri

In this collection of essays, Dr. Danielle Ofri muses on transitions: of maturing into an attending physician, of becoming a caretaker to her patients, of becoming a mother, and of becoming a patient.  

Ofri's interactions with her patients evoke powerful memories from her past. While working a brief stint as an internal medicine physician at a Catholic medical center, one of her patients has an unwanted pregnancy and wants an abortion. Ofri is forbidden from referring her to an abortion center, but feels conflicted. Ofri reveals to the reader her experience of undergoing an abortion as a frightened seventeen-year-old. Ofri decides that helping her patient is more important than following clinic policy. She refers her patient to an abortion clinic and helps the patient through an emotional trying time.

In another story, Ofri describes a bright 20-year-old patient who has no medical problems but lacks the ambition to go to college. Ofri encourages him to pursue higher education. They set up follow-up appointments, in which Ofri tutors him on his SAT.

The stories cut at the heart of the issues clinicians face. With the tremendous demands on clinicans' time, how can we still take care of the emotional needs of our patients? How can a doctor overcome his hospital's impersonal rules? How much should we reveal about ourselves to patients? How much can we trust what our patients say? Ofri parses these issues in an insightful and personal way. The "incidental findings" of the book's title are the unexpected life lessons Ofri gets from practicing medicine.

In these essays, Ofri is finding her voice as a writer. She experiments with different writing styles, and a few of the chapters are clunky as a result. Still, the richness of Ofri's perspective made reading this book worthwhile. I enthusiastically recommend this little book.
Note: I also reviewed Dr. Ofri's "Medicine in Translation" last month. I enjoyed them both, yet "Incidental Findings" seems the stronger of the two.