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Narrow perspectives: Lessons about medicine from Middlemarch

middlemarch-coverWith my second quarter of med school about to begin, I made sure to take the time this holiday to engross myself in some good books before the rush of classes begins anew. High up on my reading list was one of my favorites, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because its heftiness is also what my classmates and I might call “high-yield” – a shorthand way of saying that the wisdom I gain from its pages is well worth the effort of reading it.

In a passage in Middlemarch I had not focused on before, we glimpse the point of view of a character named Mr. Brooke. He is a well-meaning but bumbling man, and his many beliefs often veer toward inconsistency and hypocrisy. But characteristic of Eliot’s humor, the narrator refrains from mentioning his inconsistency directly, instead wryly remarking “it is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”

It got me thinking: Eliot’s being a bit sarcastic, but I think there is in fact a great deal of truth in her statement above – especially when it comes to medicine. Many of us are guilty of looking at the discipline as one apart from all others; why else would we devote decades to solely studying and practicing it? But I would argue this is a limiting perspective, and that we need physicians who can approach medicine from different points of view.

While medicine can really seem like a one-track path, the truth is that it isn’t simply a discipline – it is the ultimate inter-discipline. Just like engineering, medicine involves problem solving and the application of formulas to a system. Just like the natural sciences, it comes to conclusions based on testable hypotheses and repeatable results. And like the humanities, medicine revolves around human relationships and what it means to live a good life. In fact, what drew me to medicine in the first place was the fact that it was at once a complete departure from my background in engineering and the humanities, and yet at the same time, a beautiful synthesis of my core passions for understanding systems and people, and helping both be better.

With a new year upon us, I hope I can continue school with a perspective of trying to understand medicine through the lens of other fields in mind. As many of my classmates can probably attest, the relentless pace of classes can make it all too easy to get tunnel vision and lose sight of what brought us here in the first place. For me, that means remembering the words that cemented my excitement to come to Stanford, spoken at Second Look Weekend last April. There, Dean Minor shared his hope for us to make an impact in medicine in whatever way we ultimately felt would satisfy both our intellectual passions and personal motivations.

To me, that meant committing to remember that even as I busy myself with studying organ systems, anatomy, and everything else, I should allow myself to open my heart and mind to the wisdom other fields may have to teach me.

Best wishes for the New Year!

Cara Lai is a first-year medical student who recently graduated from MIT with a double major in mechanical engineering and literature. She is interested in the medical humanities, quality improvement, and loves to travel and do lots of yoga in her spare time.

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