“Medicine is my lawful, wedded wife, and literature is my mistress” – Anton Chekhov

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An introduction to The Medicine Stories Project, by David Galler.

I have just finished a book by Abraham Verghese called The Tennis Partner. The author is an Infectious Diseases Professor at Stanford; the story, a semi autobiographical one, is set around his relationship with a drug addicted medical student during the 1980s, at a time when Verghese’s family had moved to El Paso and his marriage was disintegrating. The relationship between the wiser physician and the younger student is the major thread of this story and defined through the metaphor of tennis. Verghese himself is a very good player and was well coached as a boy in India; David the medical student had been on the professional circuit and now struggling in his recovery from a devastating addiction to cocaine.

The book is beautifully written and for anyone with a love of medicine and people, and tennis, it is a must. Verghese’s patients have AIDS, in an era of fear when effective treatments did not exist and the diagnosis was a sentence of death (in 1983, I remember the cashier at the staff café at the London Hospital in Whitechapel not accepting £1 notes for fear of catching the yet unnamed virus).

His descriptions and stories of those patients, their presenting signs and symptoms, are very human and resonated beautifully with the physician in me.

So too was the way he recounted some of the great tennis players from the bygone era of my childhood. Stories about the legendary Australian tennis coach Harry Hopman and his training routines – the endless practice of the one, two, three traded ground strokes followed by a cross court backhand or down the line forehand; Ken Rosewall sliding on the grass into his trademark sliced backhand; Rod the rocket Laver from Rockhampton, who once gave me, a starry-eyed-ball-boy, a dozen signed tennis balls; grumpy Jimmy Connors and of course, the sublime Arthur Ashe who died of AIDS in 1993.

In the past, I have read a few books by physician/authors and have always been deeply affected by them. Many of my doctor friends feel the same way. Perhaps we speak the same language, see the same things, think the same thoughts, and want so much to be better at articulating those things that we feel and see in our everyday work; maybe that’s the reason we so admire our colleagues who can put those thoughts and words into story in such compelling ways.

We work and live in the swirl of a 1000 novels; we are surrounded by the best of real life stories. So many in fact, that we cannot embrace them all. For those we do, that needs to be done with our eyes wide open if we are to survive and remain professional and helpful.

In truth, the practice of medicine is a life of self discovery where technical competence is an entry level requirement made all the more valuable by our willingness to learn and improve what we do. However, the ultimate effectiveness of how we use those skills depends on our ability to connect and engage emotionally with people.

That line or the balance between allowing us that right mix of personal protection and distance to be able to do our job, whilst at the same time, allowing us to connect with our patients and their families in truly meaningful ways, will differ from situation to situation and from person to person. What is a comfortable position for some may be intolerable for others. There is no simple answer for us involved in healthcare, no pre-plotted compass to help us out in seeking that balance. It is a line we need to find in each and every interaction we find ourselves in, and a line that we need to advance as we progress through our careers. This is an endeavour that does NOT come easily or naturally to many of us, especially in our fast moving and demanding world.

Doing this successfully is more about sensibility than time; although with time, that sensibility can be developed. The recently deceased Professor of Physiology at Otago University’s Medical School, Douglass Taylor spoke about just that to my 2nd year class way back in the last century. For him, reading novels was his salvation from drowning in the sea that is medical training and post-graduate studies and his means to find that very sensibility we are talking about.

Some of us are talented enough to take that sensibility and turn into a force that actively sustains them and others, through the power of the stories they tell. Glenn Colquhoun does that. Glenn is a poet and children’s writer, and a GP in the Horowhenua. He is also a South Auckland boy, born and raised in Papatoetoe. He and his family have had a close relationship with my second home, Middlemore Hospital. “A Middlemore of the Imagination” is the story of the relationship between him his family and our place. You can watch him perform this at the opening of Ko Awatea here or read it and more in his most recent collection, Jumping Ship.

David Galler
Director of Clinical Leadership
Ko Awatea

Intensive Care Specialist
Middlemore Hospital
Counties Manukau Health

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