August 2, 2011

Day 6 – Wit

Today (yesterday), we watched the film adaptation of Wit, based on the play by Margaret Edson.  It is the story of a well-respected and rather unyielding English professor named Vivian Bearing, who is diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. “There is no stage 5,” as she sardonically puts it.  The movie follows the progress of her disease, and provides a kind of social commentary on physician bedside manner for dying patients (or lack thereof).

There was a lot of really great stuff in the movie.  It was amusing, sad, touching, and most of all, thought-provoking.  I have never heard of Emma Thompson before, but she is an amazing actress in this movie.  I would definitely recommend watching this film, though it does paint a rather unpleasant picture of how crude physicians can be.  One would hope, like our professor said later, that how the doctors treated the protagonist in Wit is “horribly outdated.”  And yet, I can still see it happening.  As a med student, you always hear these kinds of stories, whether from patients, from other students, or faculty.  Whether that is a reflection of failings of the medical education system, or the pressures of society, or any number of factors, the fact remains that there are doctors out there who treat their patients quite poorly.

One other thing this film really highlighted for me is the subject of loneliness.  When I was a kid, my youth orchestra would have 1-2 concerts a year at a local hospital.  At the time, I remember people saying it meant a lot to the people there that we would play there, but to us, we were just playing for some random adults and would wonder why we bothered playing in the hallway of some medical center.  Now, though, I realize that it probably really was the highlight of their day.  People there often have no one visiting them, and have to while away long hours in an empty room.  So having something to look forward to, like a concert, means a lot.

Did you know that Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, created the books because he volunteered to read to blind children and wanted to give them something more descriptive and imaginative than what was around at the time?  I think that captures the spirit of what I’m talking about here really well.  Sometimes, doing something a little out of your way can mean worlds to someone who is living in a world with bleak horizons.  His reading to the kids undoubtedly brought some joy and hope to their world.  And he was able to take that to the next level, by creating whole worlds to share with them, and everyone else in the world.

I think as doctors, we need to keep that in mind.  To not become like the doctors in this film – cold-hearted, callous, caring only about research and making a name for themselves at the expense of the patient.  We have to be careful, especially those of us going into research like most MSTP’s are expected to, not to relegate people to numbers and statistics, subjects to be experimented on for the sake of science.  Then we’d be little better than the scientists working at the Nazi concentration camps.   The only good that came out of that it really brought the ethical issues of using human subjects to the forefront, and that is why we have so many regulations about that today.

Instead, we must remember that patients are people.  They are someone’s brother, sister, parent, child.  But more than that, they are themselves – a distinct individual with thoughts, feelings, and dreams, just like we do.  And just like you or me, they need affection, acceptance.  It doesn’t require much – just a kind word, a smile.  Popping your head in once in a while to say hello and see how they’re doing.  I’ll try my best not to forget this lesson.

On that note, another very good film I would recommend is the Japanese drama 1 Liter of Tears, which is based on the true story of a girl with Spinocerebellar degenerative disease.  Watch it in the original Japanese, with subtitles.  The way they tell her story is… amazing.  So yeah, check it out 🙂


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