Medicine is a love that finds us wherever we happen to be.
It snatched me, a quiet four year old boy, almost sixty years ago. I don’t know how it happened. I remember being in the hospital and having stomach X-rays and I have also been told we had a family doctor who made house calls. I couldn’t have seen doctors on TV, because television was only introduced in Sweden when I was three and I saw my first program at age 5, a show about an infantile doll named “Andy Pandy”.
At age four I simply announced that I was going to become a doctor and I never hesitated after that. It seems everything I did from that moment on prepared me for what I do now: Being a Boy scout who made do with what I had on hand; learning discipline as a military recruit in basic training; working as a substitute teacher for fifth to ninth grade students; spending a summer as the pastor’s assistant with confirmation students and in his parish, and traveling the world to interview people from other cultures.
In my day to day work I always look for the story behind each patient’s symptom and even behind their laboratory values. I often find myself circling around the concept of Narrative Medicine.
The other day I happened to read the Swedish journal for general medicine (Allmän Medicin). A doctor, who seemed to be about my age, had written about his experiences with Narrative Medicine and the tension he used to feel between it and today’s Evidence Based Medicine.
The writer’s name was Christer Petersson, and he looked and wrote as if he was someone I had known from High School. I Googled his name and found another article he had written, in 2009, in the Swedish Medical Journal, Läkartidningen.
That article was titled “I worked as a Doctor for 20 Years. Then I Became a Doctor”.
I did a quick double take and continued to read, finding exactly what the title suggested: He had studied medicine because the science interested him and it seemed like a good thing to do. He was a young man with big thoughts and big ideas. But he felt uninspired by learning about the digestive system and was uncomfortable with the notion of treating mundane things like bleeding, boils and open wounds.
“It took about 10 years and quite a bit of agonizing before I discovered that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and it took another 10 years to understand that I actually was a doctor and didn’t just work as one. During that time I learned that man is more than his digestive system and the most important events in life often happen in the seemingly uninteresting space where blood flows, boils burst and wounds heal.”
And then, he paraphrases Hippocrates’ first aphorism:
“And I saw that it is equal parts suffering and joy to deal with all this as a doctor: to cure sometimes, treat more often and comfort the best you can.
It doesn’t get any better than that, does it?”
Different journeys to the same destination.