For generations, we have placed physicians on a pedestal. Sure, we complain about them and the cost of healthcare but when it comes down to it, we pay attention because we respect and rely on their knowledge and training. Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, a surgeon, has spent much of his equally successful writing career trying to not only demystify medicine but show that the people who practice it are as human as the rest of us. His latest work, The Soul of Medicine, is another step along that road.
Nuland gained acclaim with How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, which won the National Book Award in 1994. Highly informative yet unflinching, it sought to detail just what happens when we die. He gave us a doctor's view with, among others, The Uncertain Art: Thoughts on a Life in Medicine, a collection of essays. And he showed us just how human doctors are when he was brave enough to pen Lost in America: A Journey with My Father, a memoir in which he detailed a depression so severe that he almost had a lobotomy to try to cure it.
The Soul of Medicine is not as strong or compelling as How We Die or Lost in America. Because it collects the personal stories of more than a dozen physicians regarding their most memorable patients, it is closer to his essay collection. Nuland tells each story from the first person perspective of each narrator in the unrelated tales. In the prologue, he explains that he does so to help mask details that might breach confidentiality and to also allow him to provide commentary on various stories. Nuland indicates he wants this to be "a sort of Canterbury Tales of medicine," one by which to examine the dynamic relationships, particularly doctor-patient, that arise in the practice of medicine.
While Nuland seeks to illuminate personal aspects of the practice of medicine and Canterbury becomes the name of the hospital in many of the stories, the book cannot invoke as many perspectives as The Canterbury Tales. Just as the stories span a time frame from World War II through today, they cover a broad range of issues — some seemingly more relevant than others — and characters both heroic and despicable. Several show how the doctor learns from the patient. Others are inspiring or touching, such as the elderly man whose stroke-like episode left him having hallucinations of his deceased wife's face. When offered a drug that would stop the hallucinations, he declined it. He preferred seeing his wife's face.