Now Reading: A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, by John Berger



I’m a bit of a suggestible reader these days. I learned of this book from one of the comments on the PCHIT blog that I maintain. If you look at the comment and my interests (patient-physician communication, primary care, reducing disparities), it probably makes sense why this work would be of interest to me.

The book was written in 1967 as an essay about a general practice physician in the English countryside. It starts with a few vignettes about Dr. John Sassal’s interaction with patients, continues on into a description of his practice, and into the physician’s life and thoughts on the doctor’s role in society.

He decided to be a doctor when he was 15, when his image of a doctor was “a man who was all knowing but looked haggard,” who could come to your home in the middle of the night, with his pajama trousers hanging out, and still be calm and composed. Into his 20’s and then into his 30’s, his approach changed, to become less about the excitement of the emergency and more about the patient as a “total personality,” who he would work with for life.

The origin of the doctor role is discussed, as starting when medicine men were relived from food procurement duties, in exchange for the awareness of illness in the tribe. A special relationship was created with the physician role – a person (a stranger) who one would submit their body to in the hope that their malady or complaint would not seem so unique. The doctor’s role is to make the patient comparable to himself.

How does he do this?

..he is acknowledged as a good doctor because he meets the deep but unformulated expectation of the sick for a sense of fraternity…It is as though when he talks or listens to a patient, he is also touching them with his hands so as to be less likely to misunderstand; and it as though, when he is physically examining a patient, they were also conversing.

He does more than treat them when they are ill; he is the objective witness of their lives. They seldom refer to him as a witness…that is why I chose the rather humble word clerk: the clerk of their records.

Being a physician takes a greater emotional toll than is shown outwardly.

He is a man of extreme self-control. Nevertheless, when he was unaware of my presence, I saw him weep, walking across a field away from a house where a young patient was dying.

The minor complication that is not recognized by the patient as significant in their disease course is significant to the physician in their role. It causes depression in the professional whose attitude to their work becomes “obsessional.”

In all of this, there is a discussion of the value of this work. Unlike a scientific discovery, how do we measure the “easing” or even saving of thousands of lives by the country doctor? We are reluctant to do so because it would mean measuring the value of human life itself, and this is something that society is incapable of doing.

The book is interspersed with photographs of Dr. Sassal at work in “the surgery (his office)” and of the community members at work and at play. I think every physician today experiences many of the same feelings of a Dr. Sassal, as well as the same accountabilities to the communities they serve. It is useful to remember this as we engage in discussions of how we measure productivity and give people credit for being “good.”

As the comment in the PCHIT blog stated, many of us are only in the business of creating tools. We are not creating the heart of the relationship that the tools support. I think some of these concepts are ones that are personal and as such difficult for physicians to articulate in these discussions, so a work like this is useful.

And what about computers? That’s covered, too:

It may be that computers will soon diagnose better than doctors. But the facts fed to computers will still have to be the result of intimate, individual recognition of the patient.



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5 thoughts on “Now Reading: A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, by John Berger

  1. Matt Handley

    Ted

    I am so pleased that you remarked on this book, one that I read many years ago and inspired me to maintain home visits throughout my practice for 20 years.

    We talk a lot about technology, but what a great reminder of what the technology is in service of – long term healing relationships.

    Matt

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Now Reading: Working the Skies, by Drew Whitelegg | Ted Eytan, MD

    [...] was interesting to juxtapose a book about the ideals of a profession (See: Now Reading: A Fortunate Man) with one about a profession in transition. “Working the Skies” is about the world of [...]

  3. Pingback: I am a Family Physician. What does it feel like, in the decade of the patient, and why you should care – Part 3 of 3 | Ted Eytan, MD

    [...] It may be that computers will soon diagnose better than doctors. But the facts fed to computers will still have to be the result of intimate, individual recognition of the patient. (From A Fortunate Man, 1965) [...]

  4. jess_jacobs

    I remember reading this book in a Medical Anthro class – While the professor was talking about how happy Sassal was, I looked up his life story, only to discover he later committed suicide. While there could have been many reasons for it (and doesn’t discount earlier happiness), the emotional toll you described above is often overlooked and, on some level, played a part in the end. In this age of technology we have to remember that doctors are still people, not docbots. <3 a favorite fembot

    Reply
    1. Ted Eytan

      @jess_jacobs It’s interesting that I picked up on the stress in the narrative and I didn’t come away with the idea that he was happy. I remember thinking, “how can he do this much?” and the answer is…he couldn’t. No doubt this is a hard road to take and everyone who takes it is by definition an exceptional person. Our patients are exceptional people too, which is why I think there shouldn’t be any information or understanding gap between us.
       
      Kind of reminds me of this, from a current exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery:
       
      “On May 10, 1864, Confederates and Federals faced each other at Spotsylvania. To ease the tension, a Confederate band made its way from its usual position in the rear and began playing hymns. As soon as it stopped, a Federal band nearby started in with one of its own hymns. Then came a bout of patriotic songs. When a Confederate band finally launched into the familiar strains of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ both sides began cheering so loudly that it created a din not heard before in the hills around Spotsylvania.”
       
      We’re all singing the same hymn,
       
      Ted

      Reply

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