When Doctors Get Sick: A Reprise

Articles by:
Judith Brice, M.D.
Maurice Fox, M.D.
Ronald Karpick, M.D.
Robert Scheig, M.D.

Thirteen years after publication of our book When Doctors Get Sick, we sent letters out to the authors of the original reports to see how they had done over the years, to try to find what the long term effects of their illness had been on them as physicians and as persons. The surviving contributors were generous in taking the time to answer our survey and we were delighted that a few appended to their answers a new narrative.

Most felt that their illness had made them better physicians, particularly for the human side of the medical care they provided their patients. Most commonly, they were much more alert to pain relief, and one made the observation that he was more responsive to complaints, especially of pain, that had nothing to do with the primary diagnosis. He was happy to care for the “whole patient” in a way he had not done before getting sick.

Better attention to the patients’ privacy was another common thread in the doctors’ responses, which many felt was even more important in the era of managed care, now that with patients’ records are flying off in all directions on paper and into cyberspace. Equally impressive was the attention doctors now paid to errors of patient care, on the part of the hospital staff and of physicians in general. This, of course, is true of medical practice in 2000, but we ascribe it in part, in this group of doctors, to the vigilance they had felt necessary to look out for errors in their own care. They used such expressions as “more vigilant” and more “proactive”.

Our doctors for the most part stayed away from “alternative medicine”, although one physician with metastatic melanoma took “Chinese Herbs”. Physicians who had been seriously ill reported that they became more interested in and more solicitous of the ability of the patient and family to “cope” with the illness. Religious faith seemed not to have been changed much by the doctors’ illnesses. Those who were religious before and those who were  indifferent to religion before their illness did not see much change in these feelings. Almost without exception our sick doctors thought that they had become better listeners, and wanted us to emphasize the importance of this habit.

We are happy, with their permission, to reprint the verbatim narratives of four of the physicians. They maintain the copyright, so you should ask them for permission to reproduce any part of their stories. Of course, we will welcome any comments you care to make, and will publish them here.  Respond to howard.spiro@yale.edu

Harvey Mandell
Howard Spiro