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Medicine and Literature

Medical Education, Medical Schools, Medicine and Literature, Stanford News

Tiger mother, tiger cub: A Stanford doctor reflects on his upbringing

Tiger mother, tiger cub: A Stanford doctor reflects on his upbringing

Tiger Child Pic JAMA PedsWhen Amy Chua’s book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” was published in 2011, Jason Nagata, MD, was in medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. He caught on to the humor (which escaped some of the book’s reviewers), and the anecdotes resonated with him – reminding him of his own strict and intense upbringing. “It was very funny and very controversial,” he said. “A lot of that book stuck with me from the child’s perspective.” He started to share some of those memories with people around him and found that his fellow med school students had similar stories, too. He wrote about his experiences as a “tiger child” in a funny and touching essay (subscription required) published online today in JAMA Pediatrics.

When I connected with Nagata, we spoke over Skype because he was working in Ecuador as part of his global health residency. He noted that despite the negative press Chua’s book received, he believes that strict childhood training helped prepare him for medical school. “The tiger mentality is prevalent throughout medicine,” he said. “It was intense as a child, but it prepared me well for medical training – the hours and the intensity.”

But Nagata had to learn the hard way to make room in his schedule for rest. After a particularly intense time during medical school, he developed an ulcer that landed him in the hospital. His recovery took more than a month. He explored writing as a way to reflect and think through his experiences as a student and later as a doctor. When he came to Stanford, he attended the Medicine and the Muse writing workshops to hone his writing chops. His current essay is just the latest in a series.

Although he makes time for rest, he still has plenty of drive and intensity. He mentioned that he was planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands and to hike Mount Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, the weekend after we spoke. After he completes his residency at Stanford, he’ll start a three year fellowship in adolescent and young adult health in July 2016.

Nagata describes his own mother’s unusual path from NICU nurse to graduate student in chaplaincy. “She exemplified the tiger mom and probably works even harder than I do,” he said. “I got a lot of my habits from her.” She doesn’t demand as much from Nagata these days, but her Tiger mom spark isn’t completely gone. When he told his mother about the upcoming essay, she quipped that she was planning to write a rebuttal to JAMA Pediatrics “in her own tiger mother vein,” he said.

Previously: For group of Stanford doctors, writing helps them “make sense” of their experiences
Photo of Jason Nagata as child, courtesy of Jason Nagata

Events, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Stanford News

Medical students and physicians share their writings on “becoming a real doctor”

Medical students and physicians share their writings on "becoming a real doctor"

louisewenreading_CROPPEDThe dilemma of being a medical student on clinical rounds who wants to help patients but can’t was captured by third-year student Raymond Deng in his essay “Performing Grief,” at a recent reading held by Stanford’s Medicine and the Muse Program and Pegasus Physician Writers group.

The event, titled “Becoming a Real Doctor: Writings on Medical Education and Training,” also featured a poetry reading by fourth-year medical student Lauren Pischel, a book excerpt by Cornell physician Matt McCarthy, MD, and essay readings by Emily Liu, a second-year medical student, and Louise Wen, MD.

The audience of medical students, physicians, residents, nurses and community members listened attentively as Deng described what it can feel like to be a medical student:

For a year or two, you will inch your way on the tightrope towards white-coated authority from diligently reproduced sham. What you lack in clinical knowledge, you will compensate for with the appropriate attire. Be meticulous. Put on your requisite, freshly-pressed white coat. Hang your stethoscope across the nape of your neck. Cram the pockets of your white coat so full of notes and reference guides that they sag. Ignore the nagging incongruence: the fact that you’re not a doctor but you look like one. You want to help patients, but will settle for watching… You will feel like a cardboard marionette, dancing to the steady rhythm of acting competent and acting ignorant of your acting.

For Wen, it was acting against the rules of eating in the area of clinical care that afforded her the opportunity to connect with her patient, Sara, on a personal level:

Hey doc, here’s a treat for you, I know you guys work hard… Here, try some Afghani bread.” She looks up, eager to connect, and my own yearning to know this women beyond her illness swells within my chest. I can recite numerous details and data points about her medical history and hospital course, but her life as a human being is a gaping void.”

Eating the homemade bread, with “the inside as soft as pillowy sponge cake,” led to a sharing of photographs of Afghanistan and a filling of the void for Wen.

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Medicine and Literature, Podcasts, Public Health, Science

Jonas Salk: A life

Jonas Salk: A life

Salk book coverIn 1954, Charlotte DeCroes stood in line with her fellow second graders in Kingsport, Tennessee and received the polio vaccine. Her Tennessee hometown was one of the test sites for what was then the largest and most significant clinical trial in the history of medicine. By the end of 1953, there were 35,968 reported polio cases, and the United States was desperate to solve this devastating illness. A survey at the time ranked fear of polio second only to fear of atomic warfare.

Fast forward to 2015. Charlotte Jacobs, MD, professor of medicine, emerita at Stanford, has written a highly acclaimed biography of the famed researcher/physician Jonas Salk, MD, who developed the polio vaccine. In this 1:2:1 podcast, she told me that her ten-year journey into Salk’s life was instigated partly because she couldn’t find a thorough autobiography on him, something she considered a historical lapse.

Jacobs has written a finely honed and balanced portrait – saluting Salk’s great accomplishment while not flinching from describing a man who was enigmatic, complex and all too human. She conducted more than a hundred personal interviews and spoke to two of his three sons along with his longtime private secretary. The dichotomies of his life are fascinating. While he was loved and lauded by the public and the media, he was a pariah in the scientific community – never appreciated, accepted or awarded. (His scientific colleagues thought he was a press hound, an impression that was fueled by the media’s adoring gaze – covers and feature articles in the most popular media of the time, including Life, Time, Colliers, Consumer Reports, Popular Mechanics and U.S. News and World Report.)

Today, with vaccine wars sweeping certain areas of the country, Jacobs reminds us of a time when a major public-health crisis engulfed the nation and of a hero who made a difference and changed the landscape of medical history. It’s worth remembering.

Previously: Charlotte Jacobs on finding “snippets during every day” to balance careers in medicine and literatureStanford doctor-author brings historic figure Jonas Salk to life and Prescribing a story? Medicine meets literature in “narrative medicine”

Ethics, Events, Medical Education, Medicine and Literature, Stanford News

During their first days at Stanford, medical students ponder the ethical challenges ahead

During their first days at Stanford, medical students ponder the ethical challenges ahead

students reading oath2 - 560

In an effort to help prepare this year’s crop of new medical students for the future challenges of keeping true to the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath – to first do no harm ‑ Stanford’s School of Medicine held a new discussion session during orientation.

In between learning about housing and schedules and all the necessary details of starting medical school, the 90 new students who started class on Monday joined with two deans of the school last week to discuss one of the most controversial topics in the world of medicine: euthanasia.

Included among the students’ summer reading assignment was the book Five Days at Memorial, a blow-by-blow account of the days medical staff and patients spent trapped in a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina struck. Left without electricity or sanitation, staff slept little and worked endlessly to care for the sick and dying patients not knowing if any of the patients – or anyone else trapped at the hospital — would survive. An online story explains why the book was assigned as summer reading:

Most [new students] had not yet faced the responsibilities they will encounter routinely as physicians. It was the ethical and emotional challenges ahead that [Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the medical school, and Charles Prober, MD, senior associate dean of medical education] hoped to explore during the book discussion. “I think one of the key lessons from this book: If we’re going to make progress in medicine, we’re going to have to face realistically when we make errors,” Minor said. “Progress only occurs when we are able to frankly address those situations and acknowledge those errors.”

The book describes health-care workers treating patients in a way that could arguably violate tenets of the Stanford Affirmation. “You will be reciting this later today after you receive your white coats and stethoscopes,” Prober said. “Hopefully, the affirmation will have more meaning to you. It will help you to reflect more deeply on the words as you ponder it into the future.”

The book describes how medical staff and patients had to fend for themselves in the days following Hurricane Katrina. After the waters receded, and authorities entered the hospital, 41 bodies were found. Three health-care professionals, including one physician, were arrested for murder. A New Orleans grand jury ultimately refused to indict them on charges of involuntary euthanasia and murder, but exactly what happened during those five days, when temperatures soared, sleep was rare and proper sanitation was nonexistent, remains unclear.

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Medicine and Literature, Stanford News

Charlotte Jacobs on finding “snippets during every day” to balance careers in medicine and literature

Charlotte Jacobs on finding "snippets during every day" to balance careers in medicine and literature

Stanford oncologist Charlotte Jacobs, MD, loved reading biographies as a child. But it wasn’t until years later, while on sabbatical at Stanford, that she decided to take a creative writing course and begin cultivating a second career as a biographer.

Her first biography, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease, was published in 2010 and chronicled the life and work of one of the foremost physician-scientists in the history of cancer medicine. Her latest book, Jonas Salk: A LIFE, tells the remarkable story of the man who conquered polio. The New York Times called Jacobs latest biography, “science writing at its best.”

In a recently published Q&A on the Department of Medicine website, Jacobs discusses how she balances her roles as mother, physician and author. “I could find snippets during every day to write. Even today I find that to be the case,” she says.

On the topic of being able to meld her doctor life with her writer life, Jacobs says:

I don’t meld the two at all. When I’m writing or doing research on one of my books, I’m totally focused on that. And when I’m with my patients, I’m totally focused on them. One thing I learned from Henry Kaplan, who had a whirlwind of activity surrounding him, was that when he was in the exam room, the patient was his only concern.

“I do think my background in science helped me be a better writer, though. I chose subjects who were in the field of science or medicine because that is what I know. One of the hardest tasks was interpreting my subjects’ work to the general public. I used to think if my next-door neighbor, who was a smart housewife, couldn’t understand and enjoy the books, I had failed.

“Knowing academic medicine also helped. Jonas Salk ran into major political hurdles, and he was not treated kindly—some of which was his own doing. Having spent my entire career in academic medicine, I could understand the world in which he worked.

Previously: Stanford doctor-author brings historic figure Jonas Salk to lifePrescribing a story? Medicine meets literature in “narrative medicine”, Literature and medicine at life’s end, Poetry’s connection to medicine and the body and More than medicine: Stanford medical students embrace their artistic passions through unique program

Humor, In the News, Medical Education, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Patient Care

Graphic medicine takes flight

Empathy-Ian-Williams-510x438A recent blog post on Somatosphere sparked my interest in the role that comics can play in the study and delivery of health care, an emerging field called “graphic medicine.” The term was coined by UK-based Ian Williams, MD, who is an artist and independent humanities scholar as well as a physician. He recently launched a website of the same name.

The post introduces a few new books that just came out on the subject: Graphic Medicine Manifesto, a collaborative work by six health-care professionals and humanities scholars, and Ian Williams’ The Bad Doctor. It also describes how comics can open us up to new ways of seeing in ways that text alone cannot:

Comics allow us to ask how we can “orient” ourselves… toward the potentiality of images and away from the systematizing effects of text alone… [Comics use] images and imagistic thinking as a way to see a different mode of existence.

Since it’s an anthropology blog, it suggests that a “graphic medical anthropology” would be a great way to accomplish the anthropologist’s goal of “seeing structure, complexity, nuance, emergence, and multiplicity simultaneously.” We anthropologists often try to achieve this goal with complicated metaphors and theories, but perhaps the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words holds true in this case.

The post notes that drawings can provide an experience of self-reflection for the artist, and can inspire readers to readily and easily respond with their own experience, making the work more of a dialog. They can introduce “theoretical orientations” in ways that are more accessible, and can expose power relations in ordinary lived experience. Ordinary lived experience is particularly well conveyed by comics; they showcase the mundane and make it meaningful. They can take those “ordinary, chronic and cruddy moments” and convey what it’s like to be part of our society.

Previously: Cancer Ninja fights patient misinformation, one cartoon at a time, Using graphic art to understand the emotional aspects of disease, A comic look at 12 medical specialties, Economist to explain health reform through graphic novel, and Webcomic xkcd gets medical
Illustration by Ian Williams, “Autography as Auto-Therapy: Psychic Pain and the Graphic Memoir.” Journal of Medical Humanities 2011, reposted from Somatosphere

Events, Global Health, Haiti, Medicine and Literature, Patient Care, Stanford News

Physician writers share a “global perspective on healing”

Physician writers share a "global perspective on healing"

6319607736_156bcef31e_zWhen I saw that an event called “Medicine Around the World: Healing from a Global Perspective” was taking place on campus, I thought it would be right up my alley as a medical anthropologist.

The event, sponsored by Stanford’s Medicine and the Muse program and the Pegasus Physician Writers group, was a reading in which physicians shared some beautiful pieces they had written about their experiences providing medical services across the globe, including Haiti, Mexico, Austria, and Vietnam. The musings were less about culture than they were about poverty, conflict, disasters, and war, and what it’s like to seek health and healing in such overwhelming circumstances.

All five physicians’ writings brought to life a difficult scene. Julia Huemer, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, wrote an aching piece about interviewing a young Somalian refugee in an Austrian winter just before Christmas. She conveys the utter incapacity of her survey to capture his experience, and an uneasy awareness that he is the one doing her a favor, indulging her intrusion. Here is a teenager too childlike to carry the weight of adulthood, yet who carries it with more grounded grace than many adults. Her holiday, once marked by stressful emptiness, is not transformed in any heartwarming sense, but at least becomes more heavy, more real.

Ali Tahvildari, MD, a radiologist, composed a “Ghazal for Global Health,” a poetic form used to convey love, loss, and longing, in this case pleading for the privileged to care about foreign suffering. Mali Mann, MD, a psychiatrist, chronicled her experience being one of “los medicos volodores” who fly to Mexico, where she works with orphaned children suffering severe emotional traumas. Henry Ward Trueblood, MD, a trauma surgeon, read an excerpt from his forthcoming book about being a surgeon in Vietnam during the war, where he worked in a tragically understaffed civilian hospital. The extreme environment pushed him to test the limits of his surgical competence, which both challenged him to grow and taught him to respect his own limits when he was way out of his league.

The piece that brought in the most “culture” in a classic anthropological sense was that of William Meffert, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon who read a fictional account of being trapped in a collapsed building in Haiti while on a medical mission after the earthquake. In it, he grappled with how religion – a Haitian mix of voodoo and Catholicism – played a vital role in the life of his assistant. As an atheist, the protagonist vacillated between being baffled, annoyed, and comforted in a way he couldn’t quite grasp; in a way that circled between dream and reality, the supernatural was a means toward healing.

Previously: Stanford doctor-author bring historic figure Jonas Salk to life, Stanford med student chronicles his experiences working in rural Kenya, Surgeon-author: “My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex”, “Write what you know”: Anesthesiologist-author Rick Novak discusses his debut novel, For a group of Stanford doctors, writing helps them “make sense” of their experiences, and Exploring global health through historical literature
Photo by Hanna Sorensson

Events, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Patient Care, Sexual Health

Surgeon-author: “My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex”

Surgeon-author: "My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex"

None of the Above“How many of you know what intersex is?” surgeon and author Ilene Wong, MD, (who did her residency at Stanford and writes under the pen name I.W. Gregorio) asked an audience of medical students, doctors and community members at a recent panel discussion on the topic on Stanford’s campus.

Since we’d gathered at the event, which was sponsored by Stanford’s Medicine & the Muse Program and Pegasus Physician Writers, to listen to a book reading and discussion about intersex — a term that describes sex characteristics that are neither all female nor all male — you might think we were all well-informed about the topic. We were not, and our fidgety response to Gregorio’s opening question hinted at the problem we came to discuss: a widespread lack of knowledge in the medical, and general, community about intersex individuals.

As Gregorio and her fellow panelists, Jeanne Nollman, founder of the AIS-DSD Support Group, and Hillary Copp, MD, a pediatric urologist at the University of California, San Francisco, delved into the discussion topic – “Has the medical community failed the intersex community?” – we gained a better understanding of what it means to be intersex, why so little is known about it and what can be done to remedy this.

“I met my first intersex patient when I was pregnant with my first child,” Gregorio told us. “It made me think of what it means to be a woman and how your chromosomes determine so much.” At the time, medical students received little training on intersex, Gregorio said. “There’s still a huge gap in medical education on what intersex is. Too often intersex is distilled down to one line on the chalkboard or one question on an exam.”

Her experience inspired Gregorio to write None of the Above, a young adult book about an 18-year old girl who learns she is intersex. “Books help us think about and talk about difficult issues,” she explained. “My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex.”

Intersex is more common than you may think, occurring in approximately one in every 2000 individuals. This means that a person is more likely to be intersex than they are to have cystic fibrosis – yet most people have heard of the latter condition.

So, why isn’t intersex more well known? Nollman and Copp offered some possible explanations. “Many people think [it’s] a dirty thing because it has the word ‘sex’ in it,” said Nollman. “They think it’s something shameful they can’t talk about.”

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Medical Education, Medicine and Literature

MeDesign Human Health Book: human anatomy diagrams with sleek new look

MeDesign Human Health Book: human anatomy diagrams with sleek new look


For many people, the topic of human anatomy evokes feelings of both marvel and dismay. The workings of the body may be a wonder to behold, but their intricacies can be a pain to sort out, remember and explain.

To make human anatomy easier to learn and understand, Bruce Ian Meader, an associate professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Vignelli Center for Design Studies, and his class of 13 first-year graduate students tackled the task of streamlining diagrams of human anatomy in 2014 as part of the School’s Medicine+Design initiative.

For this assignment, the class was given 10 weeks to design several short book chapters that explain systems of the human body for a general audience. To accomplish the task, the class split into small groups to research, write, and design simplified layouts of body systems, such as the brain, eyes, joints and nervous system. Once the book chapters were complete, the students worked together to assemble the chapters into a book they called the MeDesign Human Health Book.

The book is already earning praise and has sparked a second phase for the Medicine+Design initiative in 2015. You can view the entire book online for free at the school’s website.

Previously: University of Glasgow medical student makes learning anatomy a feast for the sensesImage of the Week: A playful take on the human respiratory systemImage of the Week: VeggieanatomyImage of the Week: Quilled anatomyKitchen anatomy: Brain carved from a watermelon
Via Street Anatomy
Artwork courtesy of Bruce Ian Meader and artist Cai Jai

Medical Education, Medicine and Literature, Patient Care, Pediatrics

Stanford Storytellers: Medical students write a children’s book to comfort and educate

Stanford Storytellers: Medical students write a children's book to comfort and educate

hospitalcolorThis spring, four Stanford medical students wrote a children’s book, Stanford Storytellers, which uses imagination to help children understand and feel comfortable in the hospital.

Authors Afaaf ShakirMichael Nedelman, Karen Hong, and Zahra Sayyid, along with illustrator Emma Steinkellner, a Stanford undergraduate, came together through a call for interested Stanford Medicine students to collaborate on a children’s book in honor of this year’s Medicine and the Muse symposium’s keynote speaker, Perri Klass, MD. Klass is a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University and a children’s author who is involved with Reach Out and Read, a non-profit encouraging early childhood literacy in pediatric clinics.

“Funny enough,” Nedelman told me, “all the med students who showed up to the [book] meeting were my classmates – third-years who should’ve probably been falling asleep on a couch somewhere. Things really clicked when we found Emma, whose visual style was perfect for the project.” I recently spoke with Nedelman and the other group members over email, as coordinating their busy schedules was like herding cats!

Where does your perspective on a hospitalized child’s experience come from? 

Hong: I’m currently on my pediatrics rotation and I see a lot of children who would get some reassurance from a book like ours. Just today, I was talking to a little boy who really wanted to take his IV out. You have to keep your arm straight for days on end and deal with the uncomfortable feeling of having a needle in your arm – who would want that if they didn’t understand why it’s there? We talked about how the clear plastic tube delivers a magic “potion” into his system to fight off his infection and it was amazing how fast his attitude changed. This isn’t always the case with every patient but it’s nice to see the power of imagination at work.

Sayyid: I remember distinctly the first book series that I couldn’t put down: Lurlene McDaniel’s young adult books, which focused mainly on girls who were struggling with chronic illnesses and death. Each of her stories focused on a different girl with a different disease, almost all of which were fatal. Although I luckily did not experience much time in the hospital as a child, I remember reading those stories and thinking, “Wow, this could have been me.”

Shakir: I grew up in a house with two pediatrician parents, which meant I never went to a doctor’s office, let alone a hospital. It wasn’t until I came to medical school that I realized that kids without physician parents have a totally different take on medicine than I did. It’s completely unfamiliar to them, and things aren’t often explained in a way that a kid can understand. That perspective has fueled me to empower patients (both adults and kids) with knowledge about their care and their bodies. In addition, being in medical school gives us the unique perspective of being young in our training (the ‘kids’ of medicine) where things are still new and strange, but also being medical ambassadors for our patients. We have enough knowledge to explain concepts without forgetting what it was like to not understand them. Writing this book has been a great reminder of the importance of that communication.

hallwayWho do you hope will read the book? How do you hope it will be distributed?

Nedelman: There are lots of people I’d love to see connect with the book: The 5-year-old chemo patient, seeing the hospital through a new lens. Or his classmates, who may not understand why he always seems to be missing class. Or the attending physician, perhaps with young kids, who understands that a little bit of imagination can really help reframe an unfamiliar and at times uncomfortable experience.

Shakir: Our ultimate hope is that our book reaches the children we are writing it for. We intentionally made our protagonist a character who was easily accessible to as many kids as possible.

Nedelman: We don’t know what condition this character has; it’s all in first-person so even the child’s gender is interpretable by the reader. And even though our protagonist is seen flying, floating in space, and rolling in a wheelchair, we actually never see this character walking around.

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