Recently, I rented the 1991 movie The Doctor from Netflix.com. If you remember the early 90s, you might recall The Doctor, which starred William Hurt, Christine Lahti, Adam Arkin, and Mandy Patinkin-- three out of the four of those actors later ended up on the CBS hospital show, Chicago Hope. In The Doctor, William Hurt played a heart surgeon who suddenly finds himself afflicted with cancer. Suddenly, instead of giving medical care to others, he's receiving it. Suddenly, instead of saving lives, he's the one who needs to be saved. You may remember the movie, The Doctor ; as I recall, it was highly praised by critics and moviegoers alike. But did you know that the movie was based on a book by Dr. Edward E. Rosenbaum? Rosenbaum's book, originally titled A Taste of My Own Medicine: When the Doctor Is the Patient, was published in 1988. After the success of the movie, a paperback version of A Taste of My Own Medicine was sold under the title The Doctor. I have to admit that I read Dr. Rosenbaum's book after I saw the movie. If I was impressed by the movie, I am even more impressed by the book.
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Rosenbaum, a rheumatologist, freely admits that he had enjoyed the benefits of being a doctor. He practiced medicine in Portland, Oregon for over forty years and had risen to the ranks of chief of medicine and president of the staff. He had raised three of his four sons to become doctors themselves; one of them was president of the staff when Rosenbaum reported to the hospital for a biopsy on his seventieth birthday. So many times before, Rosenbaum had walked through the hospital's doors like he owned the place, striding past patients and support staff without so much as a second thought about their feelings. But the day he had to have a biopsy, Rosenbaum became just like everyone else. It was a powerful learning experience for Rosenbaum, who was so used to being treated like a king. Despite the fact that he had worked at the hospital for over forty years, he had to wait his turn. He had to give his name and the name of his next of kin to the admissions secretary. He had to tell the admissions secretary whether or not he'd want last rites if something went wrong. He had to give her the name of his insurance carrier.
One would think that Rosenbaum would be familiar with this process. He admits that when his wife or children were sick, he consulted other doctors for their care. But when it came to his own health care, Rosenbaum treated himself. He writes on page vi,
Doctors were not for me. I realize now that, without verbalizing it, all my life I had avoided consulting them for my own medical problems because I was afraid of what they might tell me-- and I knew their limitations.
When I became ill, like my patients, I wanted my doctors to be gods-- and they couldn't be. But I also wanted them to understand my illness and my feelings and what I needed from my physicians. Those things they could have done-- and some of them didn't.
As he was treated for his illness, Dr. Rosenbaum quickly learned why his grandmother quipped "Doctors are great, as long as you don't need them." when, many years before he got sick, he told her that he had been accepted to medical school. Rosenbaum explains that in the course of his bout with cancer of the larynx, he learned more about patient care than he had in over forty years of practicing medicine. He learned that his patients are real people with real problems. Most of them need a human being that can understand their real problems, not someone who thinks they're a god. At the same time, he learned that as a doctor, he's not perfect. Like every human being, he has needs.
A Taste of My Own Medicine is the result of a journal that Dr. Rosenbaum kept over the course of his illness and treatment. The book is divided into parts, starting with "The Onset" of his illness, progressing to "The Treatment" (with daily journal entries for each treatment day), continuing to "The Aftermath", and ending with "Back to Work". In each section, he is acutely aware of his new lowly status as patient. He writes eloquently and expressively, but with a frank bitterness just under the surface of outrage. But even in his anger, Rosenbaum never comes across as arrogant. In fact, when I read this book, I was struck by how human Rosenbaum's words were. I was touched by the fact that he recognized that even though he was a highly sklled doctor, he was also a highly fallible human being. And I was even more moved by the fact that Rosenbaum recognized that as fellow human beings, his own doctors were also fallible.
Perhaps the most important lesson Dr. Rosenbaum learned is expressed in the Epilogue. One night in 1986, Dr. Rosenbaum learned that as good a doctor as he was, he wasn't indispensable. He realized that over the course of his illness, everything seemed to run just fine without him. So, for the first time in his professional career, Dr. Rosenbaum unplugged the phone that sat on his night table. His wife asked him what he was doing and Rosenbaum told her he was disconnecting the phone. To his great surprise, she started to cry because she worried that people might need him. Dr. Rosenbaum said, "I'm going to keep helping them. It's just that I'm not on the night shift anymore."
When I was in graduate school for my public health degree, I had to take a course that detailed how the American health care system works. I learned about the "sick role" that patients assume when they present themselves for medical treatment, and I learned the basic mechanics of health insurance. A friend of mine took the same course two years later. She said that the professor now wanted everyone in the class to watch the movie The Doctor. She asked me if I had a copy of the movie, since she didn't own a TV, let alone a VCR. I told her that I didn't have the video, but I did have a copy of the book it was based upon, and that as good as the movie was, A Taste of My Own Medicine was even better. She borrowed my copy of the book and agreed with me that reading this book was a worthwhile endeavor.
Unfortunately, as good as this book is, it's not as available as it once was. If you went to your local book store, you probably wouldn't find a hardcover copy of A Taste of My Own Medicine or the paperback version, The Doctor, on the shelves. However, I did a quick check on Amazon.com and it looks like a lot of used copies are still available. Again, this book was published in 1988. While I believe that much of what Dr. Rosenbaum writes still rings true today, medical care and health insurance have definitely changed since the 1980s, for better or worse.
In just 177 pages, Edward Rosenbaum delivers an important message to anyone who works in or accesses the Western medical care system. I highly recommend A Taste of My Own Medicine to laymen and medical professionals alike. If you can't find a copy of this book, you should at least see the movie version of The Doctor. The film delivers an abridged version of Edward Rosenbaum's vital message and the good doctor even makes a cameo appearance!
If you're a health care professional, this is a great book to read. It's a good reminder of your own limitations as a human being, even when patients want to see you as more than a human being. If you're not in the medical profession, this is a great book to read because it's a reminder that even though health care professionals may seem godlike, they're really just people who have become skilled. Like all human beings, health care professionals have limitations.
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