What We’re Reading

Lately I’ve been reading Being Mortal, the book by surgeon Atul Gawande, which talks about how we (and the medical field) can better help people live their last weeks or months. I was moved by this quote from the NYTimes review:

Last and hardly least, Dr. Gawande describes some of his toughest cases, including that of a pregnant 34-year-old with terminal cancer (a tough fighter facing a heartbreaking situation) and a woman whose abdominal troubles prove far more awful than anything the doctor anticipated. By then, he has made a subtle but all-important change in how he answers patients’ terrified questions. Asked ‘Am I going to die?’ his answer could be: ‘No, no, no. Of course not.’ But he learns to say, ‘I am worried.’ That’s a way of being honest, serious and empathetic, showing he is wholly on the patient’s side. It won’t work miracles. But it’s the best a doctor can do.

I read that quote in the fall and it has stuck with me. I’ve had both not-so-great and amazing experiences with doctors, and this recent public discourse about bedside manner, especially surrounding end-of-life care, is inspiring. Very much looking forward to reading more of the book.

This is part of a series called “What We’re Reading“—featuring interesting articles on different topics we find during the week. See more here, if you’d like.

  1. So I started reading “Better” by this same author after Elise Blaha Cripe recommended “Complications” by him and I couldn’t read THAT because the library here doesn’t carry it.

    Anyway. I never got past the first chapter of “Better”, but I did whip through a book called “Body of Work” by Christine Montross. It’s a memoir of Christine’s time in med school and so incredibly interesting and powerful. She held a degree in poetry before pursuing med school, so you know the book is flawlessly written. Such a great read!

  2. Can someone tell me what the woman with abdominal issues suffered from (in the ny times quote)?? I am nervous to read this until I know what ailment she had – worried it will be what my friend suffered from. Can someone who’s read it let me know? Really appreciate it.

  3. My dad passed away this past February after a nine year battle with blood cancer. A whole team of physicians at the University of Pennsylvania treated him, and most were great. However, my mom had to read between the lines and do research on her own to really understand what was happening. Most doctors sugarcoated the facts.

    Only one doctor recommended that my mom call her children (all three of us were living in California at the time) to come home and see my dad. I’m thrilled she did, as I got to spend a week with him before he died.

    I can see that it’s a difficult conversation to have with patients, but it’s one worth having.

  4. In the Uk, the Hospice movement was founded by a wonderful doctor called Dame Cicely Saunders who believed that “dying is a natural as being born” and was a really inspirational woman who I think you would enjoy reading about Joanna. This would be a particularly interesting book to myself and my mother as she is a specialist palliative care nurse and I’m a midwife. She often says that we are like “bookends of life”. Thank you for the recommendation! Xx

  5. Thank you, always, for your book recommendations! I’m a full-time working mother with two little ones (ages 1 and 3) and researching what’s good to read out in the world is hard to do at times.

  6. Like another commenter, I picked up this book when you suggested it before. I read it over “break.” What a wonderful book–everyone should read this! I love that you’re sharing your reading; I’m always looking for a good book. I read “How We die” (see @Melody) after my dad died. It was a real comfort to me. Finally, like @Jen, I recently read “Wild.” I enjoyed it, too.

  7. I started to make a list of books that I want to read in 2015 and your article is definitely useful! :D Thanks

  8. I work in medical education, and there is a wonderful trend in medical schools to focus more on communication skills, empathy, and compassion – both in selection of medical students for admission and in medical training. A particularly fun example of this is Alan Alda’s Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University:

    On a more personal note, I think one of the big reasons I have repeatedly chosen to deliver babies with midwives in a hospital setting is because I so appreciate the phenomenal bedside manner and support, with the comfort of knowing that there’s a guy/gal who’s a whiz with a scalpel down the hall if we need him/her. You want both: the expertise and the compassion.

  9. I picked this up for my boss (a surgeon) after seeing and
    Interview with author on The Daily Show. Love to hear what you’re reading!

  10. This sounds awesome. As a medical professional I think I could learn quite a lot from this book. Thanks for sharing :)

  11. Dr. Gawande has also written a fantastic book called “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance,” which I highly recommend. He approaches difficult and complex issues with such thoughtfulness, humanity, and a way with words that is just enjoyable to read. I’m reading “Being Mortal” right now too, and really loving it. Thanks for featuring this one, Jo!

  12. That looks like a very inspirational book! I’ll have to check it out. It reminds me, how is your brother-in-law? I remember your posts a while back saying that Lucy’s husband was diagnosed with cancer, but you haven’t mentioned him in a long time. I hope they’re doing all right. xo

  13. I really loved Nuland’s book “How We Die” as well. I need to read this one!

    My husband is a rad onc doctor and talks daily with cancer patients about their individual prognoses. He has seen some docs that sugarcoat everything–they are, of course, embraced by scared patients, but it seems dishonest to ignore the hard outcomes. It seems like a tricky balance with being honest and extremely human and sympathetic to patients. It has been so interesting to hear about his day-to-day; you just never know when someone will totally defy the odds, so I think hope is a key component to helping very ill patients, combined with honesty–we deserve to know what is really going on with our own bodies.

  14. Joanna, have you read Nuland’s “How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter”? Sobering title, I realize, and I haven’t read it yet, but Brainpicking’s review of the book makes me think (1) it will be a worthwhile read and (2) it may align with your interests, esp as you’re reading “being mortal.” Here’s a snippet from the review:

    “In 1994, Sherwin Nuland (1930–2014) – a remarkable surgeon and Yale clinical professor who in his nearly four decades of practice cared, truly cared, for more than 10,000 patients – received the National Book Award for his humanistic masterwork How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (public library), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year. It is one of the most existentially elevating books I’ve ever read – a inquiry as much into how we exit this life as into how we fill its living moments with meaning, integrity and, ultimately, happiness.”

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  16. So excited for this series! I love the new Meatless Mondays series too. Cup of Jo rocking it in 2015! Currently I am reading A Secret History by Donna Tartt. Her writing so engrossing. Can’t wait to hear what you two are reading next.

  17. What’s Caroline reading???

  18. We recently lost my brilliant young cousin to breast cancer, and I now understand that the dialogue about “the end” is such a vital part of the process. She spoke with me at length about a retreat she attended for people with cancer, and how it gave her the tools and platform she needed to address her fears openly. After her diagnosis, our family initially decided we would try not to think about the “what if” and instead focus only on the positive, but ultimately it was a conversation that needed to happen for her. And us. In her words, “she needed someone to tell her how to die.” I think books like this, resources that give us the voice to engage about such an uncomfortable topic, should be on everyone’s reading list.

    From one writer to another, you may enjoy reading her blog post about this very topic:

  19. We recently lost my father in law to cancer and his final days were wrenching, but also peaceful. His wife and children really understood how little to fight and how much to comfort, and he had an amazing hospice doctor who cared for him and the family with so much patience and grace. End of life care is such an important part of medicine, and I’m so glad it’s receiving some real attention.

  20. so glad you’re featuring this book. I gave my mother (a physician) the Roz Chast graphic novel and she loved it. We can’t stop singing its praises — so wonderful to talk about such a difficult topic with her. Over the holidays, I gave her this book and she was so touched. Can’t wait to read it when she finishes it. thank you for such thought-provoking reading suggestions, Joanna : )

  21. this book is SO WONDERFUL. i mean, all of his books are, but this one I finished up on the plane back home for the holidays and I was bawling. pretty sure the people around me were getting a little freaked out…
    I’m glad you’re reading this! definitely more people should

  22. I’m very excited to read this book. I’ve read many of the authors articles in the New Yorker and have so much respect for him. I’m so glad you’ve brought this up. Our culture certainly needs to begin a discussion about this. Thank you.

  23. That sounds so interesting and moving! I love non fiction books and learning about other people’s experiences. Thanks for sharing!

    Kim … I’m talking Google analytics today!!

  24. I love this. Great post Joanna and Caroline!

  25. I loved this book and it moved me immensely. It’s been added to my list of life resources that I’m sure I’ll refer to at different stages in my life. I will never forget the lessons in it.

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  27. I’m very interested in this – thanks for sharing. Many years ago I watched a Bill Moyers/PBS special called ‘on our own terms’ and it dealt with end of life care. I was very moved by it. At that point many of my aunts and uncles had died of cancer so I was so familiar with those last days. I never understood why there wasn’t more attention especially by doctors themselves on this part of ‘life’. It surely can be dealt with in a more beautiful, caring way.

  28. My mom works at an assisted living home for people with Alzheimers. I am going to order this for her to help with with the ones that are struggling.

    nicole @ i am a honey bee

  29. I’m reading this (at your suggestion) and loving it. As much as I agree with the concept that we have to be more willing to face these difficult questions as a society, at the same time I hate that it makes me so uncomfortable to think about myself growing old!

  30. I love this new series! What a great idea.