by Daniel Butler, MD
In my third year of medical school, I was given a book that profoundly impacted my view of the doctor patient relationship. This book, A Short Life, is the soulful memoir of an unforgettable young man named Jim Slotnick, who entered medical school with dreams of becoming a doctor for the underserved. Instead, he ended up being diagnosed with a brain tumor that ultimately took his life. This powerful, poignant book offers the unique perspective of a medical student confronting his own mortality. In many ways, A Short Life is a patient’s plea to be heard. It’s a book that serves as an urgent call for compassionate care and humanism in medicine.
What allowed me to be so swept up by this book is Slotnick’s clear and authentic voice. He is an intimate, honest storyteller, who draws us into his world and holds nothing back. He begins with a whimsical tour of his early years, while weaving in an awareness and reality of his diagnosis.
By the time I got to the heart of the book, I was already connected, and invested in his journey. As Slotnick endures the increasing challenges of his disease, he expertly captures the feelings of frustration, fear, anger and longing that patients experience. He doesn’t lecture us to see the human being behind the symptoms we treat, rather he portrays his utter vulnerability, and shows us how crushing it is to not be heard. He gives us the true voice of a patient, one that is painfully, and sometimes hilariously, human.
End of life memoirs and books on death and dying have become increasingly prevalent. A Short Life has the wisdom and relevance of the current bestsellers When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. This book encourages readers to address and embrace the reality of death. The details of Slotnick’s odyssey are unsettling, but they are genuine.
Whether or not it was his intention, Jim has proposed a paradigm shift for approaching the subject of death, and the treatment of terminally ill patients. He asks us to discuss mortality candidly, even casually, the way we’d speak about a first boyfriend or road trip. He writes like a dying man with nothing to hide, and the result is profoundly human, funny and entertaining. It is precisely this quality that makes A Short Life so compelling.
Daniel is a resident in Dermatology at the Harvard Program, and has been a member of GHHS since in 2011. While Daniel was never able to meet Jim Slotnick, the author of “A Short Life”, it’s through the stories, memories, and efforts of Jim’s family that he carries on the profound message of an incredible man.