Samuel Shem, 34 Years After 'The House of God'

This, as more and more studies suggest, can lead -- hand in hand with the tyranny of algorithms and other "quality/efficiency/cost-containers" -- to more tests, more errors and medical mistakes, lower quality care, and higher costs to all.

Law 15 : Learn empathy. Put yourself in the other person's shoes, feelingly. When you find someone who shows empathy, follow, watch, and learn.

Law 16 : Speak up. If you see a wrong in the medical system, speak out and up. It is not only important to call attention the wrongs in the system, it is essential for your survival as a human being.

Law 17 : Learn your trade, in the world. Your patient is never only the patient, but the family, friends, community, history, the climate, where the water comes from and where the garbage goes. Your patient is the world.

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. In the words of the hero of the novel, the Fat Man, "I make them feel that they're still part of life, part of some grand nutty scheme, instead of alone with their diseases. With me, they still feel part of the human race." And as the narrator Roy Basch realized, "What these patients wanted was what anyone wanted: the hand in their hand, the sense that their doctor could care."

And so in 1974 I came away from The House of God aware of at least one thing: The essence of medical care, and life, is connection.


Fast forward 30 years.

I have published two more novels -- Fine and Mount Misery. Also, with my wife, co-wrote the play Bill W and Dr. Bob about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, and a nonfiction book We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men.

Love and death. How lucky we are.

During this time, as they say, life happened. There were many life struggles, and walks through the suffering. Luckily, at the right times, I was accompanied by others.

From Mount Misery, and also from conducting gender dialogues all over the world while writing We Have to Talk, I learned the importance of shifting focus from a center on "I" or "You", to "We." As in, for physicians, "We've got all the information; let's talk about what we can." The patient will say, "I think maybe we should .. " Suddenly there is a concreteness in your approach to treatment, that you are in this together.

From Bill W. and Dr. Bob, I learned that, in Bill's words: "The only thing that can keep a drunk sober is telling his story to another drunk." Alone, an alcoholic cannot resist alcohol. The self alone -- self-will or self-discipline -- will not work. What works is asking for help from a non-self-centered perspective. AA is an astonishing mutual-help organization, because alcohol and drugs are diseases of isolation. 


My latest novel, The Spirit of the Place, took me in a new direction. I had always wanted to go back to my small town on the Hudson River and join my old mentor, a family doctor, in practice. Life had taken me elsewhere, but the beauty of fiction is that you can do in a novel what you haven't in the world.

At a point toward the end of the novel, the fraught protagonist has to make a choice. He struggles with it until he hears a kind of voice in his head:

"Don't spread more suffering around. Whatever you do, don't spread more suffering around."

This is the culmination my learning so far. All of us will suffer -- it's not optional. Some will suffer more, some less. The issue isn't suffering, it's how we walk through it, and how we help others walk through it. If we decide to walk through suffering alone -- "stand tall, draw a line in the sand, tough it out" -- we will suffer more, and spread more suffering around.

This is where we health-care folks come in -- this is our job, to be with others in caring.

We doctors are privileged. In a culture that deals more and more with surface and sheen and falsity, we in our offices and house calls and surgeries are present with the deep, hard truth that comes out at crucial moments of our patients' lives. The great themes of fiction are love and death. Death is always a theme in medicine. So too, I would argue, in its many spirits, is love. And one of those spirits is resistance to inhumanity, and injustice. Love and death. How lucky we are.

Presented by

Samuel Shem, MD, PhD, is a doctor, novelist, and playwright. He is the author of books including The House of God and The Spirit of the Place. More

A Rhodes scholar, he was on the faculty of Harvard for three decades. His most recent novel, The Spirit of the Place, won the National Best Book Award 2008 in General Fiction and Literature from USA Book News, and the Independent Publishers National Book Award in Literary Fiction. With his wife Janet Surrey, he wrote the Off Broadway play BILL W. AND DR. BOB.

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