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Two Reviews: Lives in Crisis, Part II

"Mr. Grosz?"
"I don't really have a house in France. You do know that, don't you?"

- from "The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves," Stephen Grosz

It may strike you, as it did me, that the power of the human mind and the empathy of the human spirit speak clearly through the quotes above. Both of these books, THE EXAMINED LIFE by Dr. Stephen Grosz and ON CALL by Emily Transue MD, deal with the human condition. Dr. Grosz is a psychoanalyst in practice in London, and Dr. Transue is a teaching and clinical internal medicine specialist at the University of Washington. They are both in the healing professions, and their personal lives intwine intricately with those they endeavor to help, forming the engaging and oftentimes deeply moving content of their work.

I was struck by the power of empathy after reading these two authors. It is one thing to bring peerless technique and insight to treating the human mind and body, it is altogether another gift to bring deep compassion, empathy, even intuition to collaboration with patients in pursuit of understanding/healing. Stephen Grosz' book reads as a series of mysterious human fables, patients grappling with the big issues of their lives in telling and symbolic ways. In the quote above, Dr. Grosz is treating a man for whom "a safe house" has many deep-rooted psychological implications. It is not until the end of his tale that we understood the man's beloved house in France that at first appears so literal and substantive, is in fact a figment of imagination. A coping choice. What wonders there are in the way human beings navigate an uncertain world!

Dr. Transue's story is a collection of hospital vignettes that span three years in residency training following medical school as she completes her internal medicine training. ON CALL is a narrative of both the making of a doctor, and the beauty that comes when we bring an ear for the complexities of the human context to our work. Transue finds the story in each of her patients; she engages medicine - herself - and steps beyond the symptom or problem to understand the whole person, ever cognizant of the limits of the doctor-patient relationship, of medicine itself, and human idiosyncrasy.

Life, these authors show us, is both a task of adjustment and commitment to forward momentum. Consider the epigram to Dr. Grosz' work, taken from the author Andre Dubus II, "Broken Vessels,"We receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses.

I was moved and deeply engaged by both these books. The humanity and insight of both authors is stunning: every page offered a life lesson from both sides of the patient-professional story. I found myself marveling at the human capacity to care, as well as the honest, spiritual uncertainty when working in tandem with the vulnerable toward positive outcome. THE EXAMINED LIFE offers many surprising insights on our instinctive human coping mechanisms and their twisted, often marvelous purposefulness, while ON CALL offers a moving look at those moments life hangs in the balance and what it means to fight that fight. Both highly recommended.

*Because of a file limit on my website blog software, the book cover image for ON CALL by Emily Transue, MD is provided in second post above.

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