Doctors, Hands, and English Dreams
by Meg Curtis, PhD
The finest neurologist I ever met didn't major in Biology as an undergraduate. Why? I wondered. "Because healing depends on communication," he explained. "I can't treat patients successfully unless I know where they hurt—and why. My skill as a physician depends on my communication skills exceeding theirs, whoever they are, and I don't get to pick and choose who walks into my office. It might be a clerk, an engineer, or a writer."
As a writer, I didn't expect this tribute to my field coming from a scientist, but he assured me that he'd never regretted his academic foundation. In fact, he'd just sent his child off to Northern Ireland to study English there, too. She'd gone to study literature, and found a man on every street corner with a rifle. That's where language study leads: to every corner of culture, and, by traveling through language, she knew what to expect.
Since I am a writer, this physician had his hands full with me. Doctors have misdiagnosed me as a patient so many times that I introduce myself pointedly: "Hello, Doctor, I'm Doctor Curtis. I do appendices, instead of appendixes. How are you?" While the physician diagnoses me, I'm diagnosing him, too. If s/he laughs at my joke, I know the condition of his sense of humor, as well as his vocabulary and his susceptibility to defensive states of mind.
This one knew just what to say: "Oh, you're a doctor of English! How lucky! Then, I don't have to explain my treatment plans at great length. You're accustomed to looking for clues, and grasping quickly how significant the smallest details can be." We chatted along comfortably as he tested my hands for carpal tunnel syndrome. He stuck pins in my skin, but I barely noticed because he successfully distracted me with areodite references to poetry and drama.
He proved a quick learner, and didn't argue when I raised a point because he knew automatically that I'd argue right back: that's my training. He was the perfect doctor for me, and had come highly recommended by a co-worker whose grandfather was a PhD, too. The result was we agreed: surgery was the last remedy. If physical therapy proved successful, I would be on the road to recovery within weeks. It did. He is the reason I have my hands back today with no scars from his treatment.
So, he proved the essential lesson that every physician must learn first: Do no harm. He also impressed me with the wisdom of his practice. He chose to talk first, and knife a patient later—and only when necessary. He didn't knife me in either the front or back. He escorted me out of his office, and onto the life I wouldn't have discovered without him. This is what can happen when science and art collaborate. Maybe he was A Midsummer-Night's Dream.