On Being a Doctor
Module Overview: Caring for Strangers
The medical humanities offer us a formidable remedy
for what ails our profession. A growing body of research has
that exposure to literature, the fine arts,
philosophy and anthropology broadens a doctors cultural competence and
the linking of both cognitive and affective,
objective and subjective approaches to the physicians task. Ongoing
with colleagues from the arts and sciences both
complements and strengthens our views of health, disease and healing.
musicians and artists have been contemplating
suffering for at least as long as we have and have much to teach us.
give us permission to rediscover the art in what we
do and to fully imagine what makes that work beautiful. Narrative-based
medicine, a form of clinical practice informed by a
new approach to listening to patients and propelled by the writing,
and telling of stories, is gaining credibility
worldwide. Reading a story, like Entertaining Angels Unaware, allows us
enter another world and to stretch our
understanding of how a medical career can change a person. On one hand,
some of the
experiences described are familiar because our
training acculturates us all in specific ways. At the same time, we are
(even dismayed) by what happens to the female
protagonist of this story, as she moves from being a vulnerable ,
to a cynical, highly defended consultant. She comes
to think of herself as one of the boys and objectifies the people she
is meant to help.
Doctors often forget
how to read for pleasure because our education has
trained us to extract the facts and establish the sequence of events to
a pragmatic end. Yet paying closer attention to how
a text is constructed allows us to reflect more deeply and to identify
As you read this story, pay attention to its
setting and to how time passes. What do we learn about the main
her actions and comments over time? How do you feel
as you read the story? Are you left relieved or unsettled by the
What do you imagine happens after the last line?
What is the genre? Is this just a short story or might we consider it to
be a fairy tale, parable or cautionary tale?
The following questions will help you reflect on
the story and on your own personal reading/interpretation of it.
can also be shared in a group or classroom. Some of
the questions will direct
you to linked content on narrative medicine,
exploring personal values,
achieving balance, and improving communication with
Sources for reading about the doctor -patient
relationship both in memoir and fiction and a list of films on
the doctor patient relationship are also provided.
Who (if any) are the angels in this story? What purpose does this
metaphor serve? What is the literary source for this title and how does that
give the story meaning?
What vulnerabilities and insecurities does Cassiopeia, the girl,
manifest as the grown-up woman doctor? Is she aware of these conflicts? Which
defenses does she use to cope?
Is this piece sexist or realistic? Is this the reality of
medicine today? How might a man read this story differently from a woman?
What challenges do women still face in medicine?
How does this story explore socio-economic realities for both doctors
Which boundary issues are raised in the various
encounters portrayed in this story (doctor/patient, doctor/nurse,
How are patients portrayed here? What language
is used to describe them and what purpose does that language serve?
What are Cassiopeias values and priorities? Does
she like her
work? Is she a caricature or have you met
colleagues with similar approaches and styles? How is professionalism
in this story?
Is there in fact a loss of professionalism among
physicians, as this story would seem to imply?
If so, what is its cause?
If this story is a cautionary tale, what dangers does it reveal?
Writing exercises for further reflection:
Writing a short story about a
specific incident in your life and work can help you make sense of it and
increase your reflective capacity. When jotting down your story, write the way
you speak, as if you were chatting with a friend. Don’t get hung up on syntax
and grammar. Let your thoughts flow onto the page without judging them. Aim
for a first draft. You can rework it later if you like.
Write about an incident that felt
unprofessional. Tell the story with a beginning, middle and end. Don't
just tell what happened;
show it through images, sounds, sensations. Let
the reader know how you felt about what happened.
Find the letter you wrote to get into medical
school. Compose a letter to your younger self, incorporating what you
Write your own Hippocratic Oath in 20 lines or less.
List 5 things you can do to protect yourself against cynicism and
Write a 3-line reply or rebuttal to one of the
inappropriate comments that is attributed to Cassiopeia in this story.
could you challenge an inappropriate comment or
attitude in a colleague without humiliating them or causing conflict?
Learn More: Literary, humanities and film resources