A Patient and His Doctor Learn About Empathy

Dr. K is a large, hairy man, and this is my second time seeing him as my GP. The examining room where I wait for him is a mess of folders and needles and pamphlets, the floors scuffed, the walls in need of a coat of paint; it’s as if the doctor and his office staff pursue the aesthetic of the apocryphal teenage boy. As in most any situation where I will be waiting or sitting for any amount of time, I have a book with me. For the occasion of my first physical with Dr. K, I happen to be reading After the Falls, a memoir by Catherine Gildner about her teenage years in America during the rebellious sixties and seventies (which happens to be a very well-written, very engaging book; I highly recommend it). I came across the book when I found it on the kitchen table at my parents’ house; my aunt had lent it to my mother and as soon as I picked it up I was immersed in Gildner’s world.

When Dr. K finally trundles in he notices the book immediately. “What are you reading?” he asks, picking up the book with hands that I must assume have been involved in saving countless lives. He holds the book in front of his face like it is a plate of unknown food in some foreign country and I do my best to give an elevator summary of the memoir (probably something very similar to the one above). Dr K acts with what, to me, is unwarranted surprise. “It’s about a girl growing up in the sixties?” he asks, laughing. “What can you relate to about that?” His response to the book catches me off-guard. “I mean, how can you relate to a girl in the sixties?” he asks again, flipping through the pages as if the answer will float up to him. “What’s there to relate to? What’s there to relate to?” he barks, laughing as if he’s caught me out.

I have been wary of talking about books with anyone in the medical profession ever since I told my dentist I wrote short stories and he spent the entire forty-minutes of my root canal regaling me with the plots of all of the thrillers he had read, pausing from scraping out the inside of my mouth with his little mascara brush whenever he wanted a response, which given the circumstances never amounted to much more than a hollow grunt and a little nod. Even so, as I sit here and Dr. K expresses over and again the lack of anything relatable in the book – imagine it, a twenty-seven year old male reading about a fifteen-year old girl fifty years in the past! – I would like to have a cogent response of some kind. I dimly realize that this is the type of situation where a fitting response – entire paragraphs of fitting response – would come to me after the fact, perhaps even minutes after leaving the office.

But what could I do? Dr. K has the upper hand. I have no seminar presentation prepared on the power of empathy, no language to describe the somewhat twisted logic of Dr. K’s sentiment – should I be reading nothing but novels about Jewish twenty-something Canadians, and he about overweight, unorganized GPs? ( …Not to say I wouldn’t be interested in reading either of these novels (because I would), or perhaps an experimental short story about the two disparate characters, caught in an enclosed environment of some kind – an elevator, a convenience store, a Sushi restaurant bathroom). “I just don’t see what you can get out of a book like this,” the doctor continues, shaking it as if this was an interrogation, and I, mentally frozen, shrug my shoulders, wishing for it to be over.

The good doctor will berate me for a while longer in his cluttered office before returning the book and allowing us to get down to the business at hand; soon enough I will be back on the sunny street in front of the medical building, quite healthy, quite alive, and still very much committed to continue learning, connecting, and opening myself to those different than me through the stories they tell.

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