Daniela Lamas, MD is a pulmonary and critical care doctor practicing at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and is a member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School. In her first book, “You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor’s Stories of Life, Death and in Between,” Dr. Lamas shares her perspective as a critical care doctor treating patients during their sickest and most vulnerable of times. The stories are personal and sincere, and the scenes are described explicitly, almost making this reader feel like a pulmonary and critical care physician herself.
The title of the book comes from an early story and serves as a cliffhanger that she returns to at the end. If I had to choose another title for Dr. Lamas’ book it would be “Dr. Lamas’ Diary.” She offers a look into her patients’ stories of both survival and death, as she navigates situations beyond the role of a physician and outside the hospital walls.
“You Can Stop Humming Now” details how patients can experience post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their time in the intensive care unit. Dr. Lamas writes: “Throughout the course of my training for this role, I have learned how to manage a ventilator, how to treat sepsis, and how to sort out the causes of renal failure. I have even learned to look at death, to be present in that moment when the body stills, and to feel the weight of that ending and not to look away. But what I didn’t learn during those same years is what comes after those who do not die, whose lives are extended by days, months, or even years as a result of cutting-edge treatments and invasive technologies.”
This idea sets the stage for the compelling stories of what comes after such intensive care.
In several stories, Dr. Lamas recounts her interaction with a patient named Charlie, who invites her to his home to celebrate his one-year release from the hospital. “For my colleagues and me, the time in the hospital when we interact with patients like Charlie… is generally all we know of their trajectories,” she writes. “Perhaps we see them if they get sick enough to return to the unit and if that readmission coincides with our time on service. But we rarely have the opportunity to follow them out through long-term acute hospitals… and maybe, if they are very lucky, back home to a life that looks something like that they left.”
Not all of the stories have an uplifting ending. Dr. Lamas recalls one family’s fear of their loved one remaining alive solely through use of a left-ventricular assist device, and the infections that followed. Another heart-breaking story details a college student who almost died following a drug overdose.
The stories evoke emotions of joy, devastation, stress and surprise. They also serve as reminders that patients in a care setting are only sharing part of their story, and that to really get to know a patient, physicians may have to step outside of their comfort zone.
Dr. Lamas concludes: “I can only hope that the stories captured in these pages… might help us to enter and navigate our ways through these new worlds with our eyes open.”
I recommend this book to both those entering a health profession, and those who have been practicing for some time, as the stories embody Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see.” My hope is that in picking up this book, you experience the emotions I did and sense a deeper connection to humanity.
This book is part of our 2018 Summer Reading for Compassionate Clinicians list.