Review by Perry Dinardo
“I write the story and the story writes me.” In Bedside Manners: One Doctor’s Reflections on the Oddly Intimate Encounters between Patient and Healer, David Watts, MD describes a series of patient encounters that surprised, moved, frustrated, or unsettled him, just as they will the reader.
The stories are brief, many only a few pages, but they are not to be read quickly. The true message of each story is not always clearly communicated until a dazzling insight is revealed at the end, in a way that often made me pause to reflect or even re-read before before diving into the next story.
While the book is prose, Dr. Watts is a thoughtful storyteller with a poet’s attention to detail, and each story is as carefully crafted as a poem. In fact, poetry plays a shining role in several of his stories, even as it shares the spotlight with decidedly unpoetic procedures such as endoscopies and colonoscopies. Like poetry, some of the stories require a degree of interpretation.
Dr. Watts makes the stylistic choice to narrate conversations without quotation marks, which means that it’s occasionally necessary to reread sections of dialogue to understand what is being communicated and by whom. His humorous internal monologue is often not clearly delineated from the remarks he makes aloud, letting the reader experience his feelings of incredulity or empathy as he remembers them,
Throughout Bedside Manners, Dr. Watts reflects on when to sympathize and agree with patients’ complaints, and when to set the record straight with a bluntly honest, yet compassionate, remark. He recalls times when he puts his patients’ needs above his own, and times when he made the difficult choice to stop treating a patient who abused him and his staff. His patients and their families are heartbreaking or aggravating, selfless or stubborn, dignified or delusional, manipulative or graceful, and he approaches each encounter with sensitivity, wit, humility, and breathtaking insight.
Though being a doctor implies a certain amount of power, Dr Watts describes many humbling experiences, at one point writing, “Maybe it is not my role to alter the impact of disease after all; maybe I can only introduce a little sway in the hammer’s arc.” At another point, he writes, “Okay, so you’re a doctor…Just don’t go around acting like one.” He also describes the doctor’s difficult job of projecting outward confidence while helping patients and their families to make impossible decisions, saving any uncertainty for after the patient leaves. In one anecdote, he convinces an elderly patient to continue receiving treatment at the hospital. After the patient agrees and the encounter concludes, Dr. Watts reflects, “I don’t know if the decision was right….but in the moment we made it, it was perfect.”
Dr. Watts states his own observations and experiences through his medical training and practice, as well as his own experience as a patient, without attempting to draw conclusions about modern medicine on a general scale. His stories remind us of the many ways in which “mystery still works in our lives,” even within the routine, everyday considerations of life and its inevitable complications. Bedside Manners is an engaging and reassuring read for anyone who has ever been on either side of the patient-provider interaction.
Perry Dinardo is a 2014 graduate of Duke University, an employee at Boston Children’s Hospital and a Research Intern at The Arnold P. Gold Foundation Research Institute. She plans to attend medical school in the future and is excited to contribute to the Gold Foundation’s work.