“The Empathy Exams” Covers Expansive Ground in an Innovative Way

Leslie Jamison’s arresting collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, graced more than one “best of” list at the end of 2014. After reading it, I can see why. It’s original, often challenging, and an ultimately thought-provoking book.

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Not surprisingly, the quest to understand empathy — what it really means and how we come to experience it — ties all the pieces together here. What’s interesting is the way Jamison approaches it through her writing, coming at the topic from multiple angles. And given the fact that the essays included here were all published elsewhere prior to appearing in this book, the nature of empathy and our expression of it is seems to be something that preoccupies her.

In the opening essay, which gives the book its title, Jamison describes her experience working as a medical actor. These are people who pretend to have symptoms and illnesses so that doctors in training can practice both diagnosing them and interacting with patients. The actors are instructed to grade the doctors on how much they felt they empathized with them (which ultimately tends to be the doctors saying some of the same rote phrases again and again). But Jamison uses this as a jumping-off point to write about some of her own actual medical history and the way she felt doctors responded to her with empathy, or a lack thereof.

The landscapes in The Empathy Exams are expansive, taking the reader from the hills of northern Tennessee for an ultra-marathon to the gang-addled neighborhoods of south central Los Angeles to a violent night in Nicaragua and beyond. We learn, in an uncomfortably up-close and personal kind of way, about Morgellons disease and the plight of people suffering from something that many in the medical community aren’t convinced really exists. We hear about inmates and crime and also about the suffocating existence of Bolivian silver miners, working twelve-hour shifts in mines beneath the highest city in the world.

Jamison takes us to these places and introduces us to these people in an effort to answer what I see as her primary question: how can any of us truly know and feel what it’s like to be another person? We can talk about it with them, we can try to imagine ourselves in their circumstances, we can draw on the repository of similar experiences from our own lives, but we’re never quite sure we’re getting it right. That’s no reason not the try, though. As human beings, we owe that to one another. I believe that’s the overarching message of this compelling book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2015/01/16/louann-lofton-jamison-gives-exploration-empathy-many-angles/)

The Buddha and the butterfly

“I embrace emerging experience.
I participate in discovery.
I am a butterfly.
I am not a butterfly collector.
I want the experience of the butterfly.”
— William Stafford

Me, communing with the Buddha. Cambodia, December 2011.

Me, communing with the Buddha. Cambodia, December 2011.

(My intention for this year — and every year, every moment — in verse and in photo.)

Books: On Station Eleven

If I were to tell you that a book about the end of the world (as we know it) could somehow leave you optimistic and encouraged, I doubt you’d believe me. But the incredible novel Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, would prove me right, despite its often harrowing twists and turns.

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A finalist for this year’s National Book Award, Station Eleven takes what has come to be a standard apocalyptic trope (world ends, people flee, all hope’s lost, everything’s bleak) and turns it upside down. True, in Mandel’s imaginary world (which, incidentally, does not feel too far off from our own current world) a fast-moving flu wipes out an enormous percentage of the earth’s population and people do indeed flee, into seemingly hopeless, bleak times.

But the similarity to other books of this kind ends there, thanks to her brilliant character development, intricate plot, and the overall feeling of the story. Several characters’ lives unfold before us, as time jumps back and forth, and we learn about them both before and after the pandemic. Included in this number is a huge Hollywood star, a photographer-turned-paramedic, a Shakespearean stage actor, and the members of what’s known here as the Traveling Symphony.

After the collapse of civilization, with people spread out into small groups and communities, the musicians and actors in the Traveling Symphony go from place to place to perform concerts and Shakespearean plays. In a time when most people are struggling to just merely survive, the Symphony’s belief in the importance of preserving beauty and art is admirable – and often risky. The members want to give their fellow human beings who made it through the worst of it, as they did, a reason to remember what was beautiful and meaningful about the world before the pandemic.

Mandel writes with such precision and care, and her book is paced perfectly, so that you’re compelled to just keep reading, to keep finding out what happens to these characters you grow to care about so much. She has you rooting for them, and more than that, rooting for art and literature and culture, and hoping that maybe those things would actually endure in similar circumstances.

Whereas some other apocalyptic stories can seem so spare and so dark, Mandel gives this book rich details and a lifelike feeling. Of course, her observations of what the end of the world would be like are, naturally, unsettling and upsetting. They have to be. But that’s not the end of it here. She gives us so much more than that, in this beautiful and ultimately hopeful book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/12/24/louanne-lofton-new-twist-dystopian-fiction/)

Books: On Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation

True story. When I was little, I decided I wanted to be one of three possible things when I grew up: a writer, a stand-up comedian, or a doctor. Luckily and happily, I’ve managed to make the first one happen. Not sure what I was even thinking with that second one — maybe too much early exposure to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy?

As for the last, I think I actually might have made a good doctor, but life had other plans. I had severe asthma as a kid growing up in south Mississippi. I was in the hospital at least twice a year and I loved being around the doctors and nurses. They made me feel safe. I knew I would feel better, thanks to them. And my pharmacist father had taught our family doctor high school chemistry (in my dad’s pre-pharmacy days), so that was a very familiar relationship. I looked up to Dr. Burris and respected him.

Looking back on it now, he displayed so much patience and kindness with our family — my dad would call him at all hours about me and my also-asthmatic sister and sometimes we’d end up at the doctor’s house at 3am, sitting and wheezing at his kitchen table while he decided whether we needed to be admitted to the hospital. The beauty of small-town life, I guess. (To be fair, my father also opened his drugstore at all hours of the day and night to help people in our community get the medicine they needed — often not charging them for it. But those acts of kindness deserve their own separate post.)

So, despite not becoming a doctor myself, I’m still drawn to reading about it. And talking about it. And thinking about it. I’m simply fascinated. Heaven help you if you’re my friend and also a doctor — I have so many questions for you! But all from a place of deep admiration.

And with that introduction as background, here’s my write-up of the excellent book Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation for the Mississippi Business Journal:

Cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar’s memoir, Intern, about his residency at a New York City hospital is a touching, honest account of the difficulties young doctors face when they leave medical school and attempt to become practicing physicians. In particular, the first year of residency, known as internship, is legendarily grueling and the learning curve steep. Even those of us not in the medical field have likely heard about the all-nighters, the exhaustion, and the overwork. After reading Jauhar’s book, this view doesn’t seem to be an exaggeration.

In addition to making his readers feel like we’re right alongside him in the hospital late at night with blurry eyes and twitchy nerves, Jauhar’s book is also interesting because of his own unique path to becoming a doctor. Unlike many of his fellow interns (as well as his older brother), who’d wanted to be doctors for their entire lives, Jauhar majored in physics in college, was working towards a PhD in that field, and had always wanted to be just about anything but a doctor. A change of heart drove him to switch from physics to medicine.

During his internship, however, self-doubt about his decision arises repeatedly. His candidness about this ongoing ambivalence towards his chosen profession and his understandable worries that maybe he’s just not cut out to be a doctor make his story so relatable. And they underscore how emotionally draining that first year of residency is.

Jauhar also struggles with how to balance the need to be efficient and decisive when it comes to treating patients and his desire to have an emotional connection to them. He wants to be a good doctor, but he also wants to be a good person, and he discovers that those two goals are often at odds. Some of this is related to the sheer workload and the very real time constraints interns are faced with, and some of it, as he notices with older residents, appears to be a coping mechanism. Doctors see so much pain and encounter so many awful stories that some of them have to resort to dark humor about their patients or, worse, a callousness that Jauhar wants no part of. He promises himself that he’ll become a different sort of doctor.

Reading this book deepened my appreciation for doctors, their hard work, and the complicated choices they’re often faced with. I also empathized even more with my friends who’ve become doctors. Of course, I’d heard about their sleepless nights, but this book gave me whole new insights into the relentless nature that’s required to become a physician.

(Originally published — without the introduction about my childhood choices of profession — here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/12/12/louann-lofton-story-physicians-early-years-inspiring/)