There’s nothing like getting lost in a book, the kind that makes you want to ignore the rest of the world because it is that good. As a kid on report card day, I loved going to the bookstore, stocking my bookshelves with The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High. To this day, one of the most relaxing activities I can think of is locking myself in the bathroom with a steaming hot bath and a great book.
It was actually books that spurred my decision to become a doctor. My adolescent self was deeply impacted by a young adult series called “One Last Wish” by author Lurlene McDaniel. With heavily dramatic titles like “Someone dies, Someone lives” and “Sixteen and dying,” these books explored topics like living with cystic fibrosis and HIV, being diagnosed with leukemia, and waiting for a heart transplant. I immediately decided that I would of course grow up to be a doctor to help these kids.
What fascinated me, what really sucked me in, was the inner workings of the minds of the characters. Spending three hundred pages with a character allows you to walk inside the mind of someone else. To glimpse their motivations, goals, aspirations and priorities. In this way, reading promotes empathy and forces you to see things in a more nuanced way.
Reading come up in my daily practice as a primary care physician. Just this morning, I used a dinosaur book to lure my reluctant three year old in the car for school AND because it was still conveniently located in my purse, I then used it to examine two reluctant toddler’s ears. I then chatted about books with my next patient, an exceedingly lovely 82 year old woman. We exchanged book recommendations like friends chatting over a cup of tea. We started out talking about New York city where her book was set, but soon took a detour to raising a family, marriage, the death of a loved one, finding things to keep busy in retirement, the joy of grandchildren and then bouncing back into books again. Talking about books is a win-win. I now have my next book to request from the library (“Rules of Civility,” set in New York City and sounds fabulous). But more importantly, these exchanges further our doctor patient relationship. She knows I care about her as a person, not just a patient on my schedule or a set of labs. The father of modern medicine William Osler famously said “It is much more important to know what sort of patient has a disease than what sort of disease a patient has.” For me, when armed with a book, I can do just that. Books help me to bridge the divide between me as a physician and my patients, molding me into the kind of doctor my adolescent self aspired to become.