You could teach a class in medical ethics using only “Five Days at Memorial” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”
And someone really should, ideally to first-year medical students. Their future patients also would be well-served to consider the lessons of these books — seminarians, too — but let’s start with physicians-to-be and the world they are inheriting: One in which 31 percent of Americans believe doctors should “do everything possible in all circumstances” to save a life, according to Pew Research, and as many or more believe doctors should be legally allowed to help people die.
Imagine it will be your job to somehow square those two realities, and to communicate skillfully enough to know and understand which patient you are advising and treating.
And welcome to med school.
The authors of “Five Days at Memorial” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” are journalists. Sheri Fink also is a physician who has written a profound, epic story of medical care in the catastrophe of nature and neglect that was New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Katy Butler repeatedly traveled from Northern California to Connecticut over six years to support her elderly mother in carrying for her father, a stroke victim whose time finally ran out in spite of his pacemaker’s persistent pulse. (“Five Days at Memorial” is a finalist for the National Book Critics Award in nonfiction.)
Both stories will break your heart, but their higher purpose is to open your eyes. One is a compelling look at what we ask of doctors and nurses in the most extreme of circumstances.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.