Staying human within the machine
When I was a medical student, I read a book called The House of God.
It was, to say the least, an eye-opener.
If you don’t know The House of God, it is a satirical account of an intern as he navigates the strange world of hospital medicine. By turns cynical, hilarious, tender and depressing, it’s practically a bible for junior doctors.
The reason it is so popular, I suspect, is that it’s funny but also frighteningly true.
To give you an example, one of the “laws” of the House of God is: “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse”.
When you’re an intern, The House of God feels like a pretty accurate account of your job – particularly the way that its constant demands can alienate you from the very people you’re meant to be helping. Despite the caring nature of the role, there can be an odd detachment that one experiences as a young doctor.
Put it this way. It’s hard – if not professionally impossible – to feel deeply for every patient you see when you have a list of 60 names to review by the end of your 15-hour overnight shift. When your pager is buzzing. When you can’t get that bloody IV line in. And when you’re worrying about whether you wrote the wrong dose of heart medication for the patient you just saw.
In other words, it can be a dehumanising experience.
Nevertheless, there are times when the raw humanity of the job smashes its way into your consciousness. I once looked after a patient with terminal cancer – a truly lovely lady – who died in front of me after weeks of suffering. Some 17 years later, the memory of her final hours still haunts me.
Ultimately, this contrast between personal connection and systemic disconnection is what the House of God is really about.
Samuel Shem, the author, reflected on his influential book 34 years after its publication:
“Some have said that The House of God is cynical. And yet in rereading, it has a constant message that I was dimly conscious of in writing: being with the patient.”
For me, this reinforced the need to stay human at work. It’s profoundly important for people in healthcare, of course, but it applies to every field to some extent. The recent suicides of overworked young people in advertising agencies have served as a sad reminder that even our own industry can grind people down.
Notwithstanding our obsession with technology and chatbots and AI and all the other substitutes we have for humanity, our work is still mostly done by people. For now, at least, we need to take care of them.
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