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Medicine and Literature, Podcasts, Stanford News

Into the Magic Shop: Stanford neurosurgeon Jim Doty’s captivating memoir

Into the Magic Shop: Stanford neurosurgeon Jim Doty's captivating memoir

Doty and Dalai LamaWhen he was 12 years old, Stanford neurosurgeon Jim Doty, MD, met an unusual woman named Ruth in a magic shop in Lancaster, Calif., the town where he grew up. When she enters his life, she seems ethereal or perhaps even a dream. She arrives at the exact moment she’s needed, a young boy from a fractured home spinning without direction or parental love. Well before mindfulness became commonplace, Ruth taught him a series of mental exercises to ease his angst and focus on a world of possibilities not problems. Most significantly, Ruth offered hope to a somewhat hopeless life.

Doty has written an unusual memoir – Into the Magic Shop – detailing his life’s journey. In this 1:2:1 podcast I spoke with him about this most uncommon life –  one of potholes and promise, detours and dreams, redemption and revisions, and, yes, contentment and even possibly peace.

Stanford physician and noted author Abraham Verghese, MD, gave advance praise to the book:

Into the Magic Shop is pure magic! That a child from humble beginnings could become a professor of neurosurgery and the founder of a center that studies compassion and altruism at a major university, as well as an entrepreneur and philanthropist is extraordinary enough. But it is Doty’s ability to describe his journey so lyrically, and then his willingness to share his methods that make this book a gem.

Outside of the OR, Doty spends much of his time studying the neuroscience of compassion and altruism. He serves as director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at the School of Medicine, of which the Dalai Lama is a founding benefactor.

Into the Magic Shop may not be like anything else you read. But it will take you places where you might never have been.

Previously: What the world needs now: altruism/A conversation with Buddhist monk-author Matthieu RicardFrom suffering to compassion: Meditation teacher-author Sharon Salzberg shares her story and How being compassionate can influence your health
Photo of Doty and the Dalai Lama, from a 2010 Stanford event, by Linda Cicero

Medicine and Literature, Podcasts, Stanford News

When Breath Becomes Air: A conversation with Lucy Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air: A conversation with Lucy Kalanithi


Kalanithis - bigA few months before he died, I interviewed Paul Kalanithi, MD, for a 1:2:1 podcast about a gorgeous article he wrote for Stanford Medicine entitled “Before I Go.” I knew his days were short, yet when he came into the studio I was taken aback by his frailty. I think I was hit broadside because seeing him reminded me so much of my brother, Bill, in his last days alive. On the one hand each was still fighting cancer and yet there before you was a map illustrating how a disease overwhelms a body.

Paul spent his last months writing a book called When Breath Becomes Air. It’s a searing memoir that at times strikes you so hard, you cry. Already, it’s being heralded as a great book that is “indelible.”

One passage still stabs at my heart. It’s the rawest part of the article he wrote for Stanford Medicine, and it’s included in the book. It’s written as a note to his daughter, Cady, conceived after he was diagnosed and born while sand was slipping through his fingers:

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with sated joy. A joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

Now that his book has been published, it’s his widow, Lucy, a physician at Stanford, who has become his voice. As we sat down for this 1:2:1 interview I told her I had felt so unsure about the direction of my questions the day I spoke to her husband. How do you sit across from someone living and talk about their dying? The same anxiety was there before I spoke with Lucy. Were there areas of grief still bandaged over that I shouldn’t try to uncover?

In the end, the conversation with Lucy feels like a bookend. What began with Paul, a discussion about the time that remained for him, is cemented now with her words after he’s gone. (As we began, I told her that months before when Paul and I had talked he had sat in the same chair she was in. It comforted her knowing that.)

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Education, Medicine and Literature, Podcasts

Recommended holiday reading for the medicine and science enthusiast

Recommended holiday reading for the medicine and science enthusiast

Waiting and Reading at Bryant ParkA good book can transform boredom into bliss in the amount of time it takes to buckle yourself into an airplane seat. Yet all too often we find ourselves stranded without a good book in sight. Reading is good for your brain’s health, so don’t get caught without a book you cannot wait to read. Here are a few page-turners to have in your back pocket this holiday season:

Mindset: Bill Gates recommends this bestseller by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, in his list The Best Books I Read in 2015 and in a separate book review. Mindset also made the list of 58 Books Recommended by TED Speakers.

Jonas Salk: A Life: This book by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, MD, professor of medicine, was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2015 by the New York Times Book Review. This book was also the subject of a 1:2:1 podcast.

A Well Designed Life: Author Kyra Bobinet, MD, MPH, blends brain science and design thinking to address why it’s sometimes hard to get ourselves to do what we know is best for us and what we can do about it. In this recent podcast with Paul Costello, Bobinet, a behavior change expert, discusses her book and shares tips on designing a healthier life.

The Good Gut: This book by Stanford microbiologists Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, and Erica Sonnenburg, PhD, explores how gut bacteria affect physical and mental health. The Sonnenburgs discuss their book here on Scope.

Food Love Family: A Practical Guide to Child Nutrition: This book by Stanford child nutrition expert Maya Adam, MD, highlights how cooking simple, home-cooked meals can nourish and teach children about eating right at a young age.

The book that made me go to medical school: In this Scope blog post, medical student Natalia Birgisson talks about the book that inspired her to pursue a career in medicine and lists a few of her other favorite books related to the realm of medical science.

Previously: Stanford study shows how the brain responds to different types of reading instructionStanford Storytellers: Medical students write a children’s book to comfort and educateUsing texting to boost preschool reading skills and Reading, book sharing less common in immigrant families, Stanford study finds
Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen

Education, Immunology, Medicine and Literature

Stanford alumnus writes children’s book to inspire next generation of curious minds

Stanford alumnus writes children’s book to inspire  next generation of curious minds

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Soon there will be a new superhero children’s book available, but these superheroes aren’t from Marvel comics. The book, Rose’s Superhero Birthday: An Immune Cell Treasure Hunt, is about the immune cell superheroes that keep us healthy.

Angela Landrigan, PhD, did her graduate and postdoctoral training in immunology at Stanford’s medical school, where she studied how immune cells respond to cancer. She now works at a private company that develops software used to analyze immunology “big data.” She’s also a busy mom to two energetic, curious girls, which led her to write and illustrate a children’s book to make learning about the immune system fun. I spoke with Angela last week about her new book, which she plans to distribute on her website.

What inspired you to write a children’s book?

My kids led me to write this book, particularly my 4-year-old Violet. Sometimes I work from home analyzing datasets, and she’ll look over my shoulder and ask me all these deep questions about cells and what they do. Plus we talk through the details of everyday things, like if she gets a cut or flu shot. I realized that kids can pick up a startling amount of detail, and they’re so thirsty and eager for knowledge.

So I wrote the book to answer Violet’s questions, then I quickly realized that I have the opportunity to teach more children and even parents and caregivers about how our immune cells work. Immunology is becoming an increasingly popular topic in the public health conversation — anything from vaccine awareness to disease epidemics. My book can help people to have less fear of the unknown and to be better equipped to make decisions that influence their own lives and public health.

How did you develop the characters and storyline for your book?

The main character emerged because my daughter Violet wanted me to tell her new stories every night before bed. So I created this character who goes on adventures.

The book follows a 7-year-old girl named Rose, who is really excited about science. She asks her immunologist-Mom for a science-themed birthday party with a B-cell birthday cake and a treasure hunt for stuffed animal immune cells. The next day, Rose invites all her friends over for a play date to create and act out a play on how immune cells work together in concert to get rid of a virus.

I’ve tried to capture the joy of creation, exploration and discovery of childhood, while engaging kids to think deeper.

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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”

Education, Ethics, Events, 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

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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

Education, In the News, 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

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