Thursday, March 25, 2010

Notes on a Film: The Doctor

Last night I watched The Doctor, a 1991 film with William Hurt, on Netflix. Adapted from the autobiographical account of Dr. Ed. Rosenbaum, the movie features an expert surgeon, Dr. Jack MacKee, who does not show compassion for his patients and who can be callous towards his patients' bodies in the OR. Dr. MacKee's actions in this film represent an extreme; while many of us have encountered a physician who can be indifferent or cruel, I would hope that most people find doctors who show kindness and conduct themselves professionally even when they think patients aren't looking. When MacKee acquires cancer himself, he finds out that the system does not treat him any differently from other patients.

Like the other patients (and us), he must deal with unsettling waits for difficult news, practitioners and technicians who don't explain what they are doing to him, medical mistakes, outright fear, humiliation and embarrassment, an inability to get important test results long after they are available, bureaucratic paperwork and errors. Gender does not soften the system: though his doctor is female, MacKee is subject to the cold indifference he often showed patients. When he complains about it, saying that everyone will be a patient someday, his medical file is thrown at him in anger. The irony: his doctor is kinder than he was.

While a two-hour movie can only capture so much of the medical system, I definitely recommend the movie to both physicians and patients (who are more than patients--we have lives outside that status). From Dr. MacKee, we see that much of the heartwrenching emotion patients sometimes struggle with stems not from a lack of medical knowledge but from the medical system as well as the illness or disability. Patients are not "stupid" for having emotions or being ill or disabled or for struggling with the indignities of medical tests and the medical system, which dehumanizes because it simply cannot accommodate individual needs, such as MacKee's need to see his own patients on time.

Even though he is a physician, MacKee's express wishes are ignored. He asks for a lead apron to protect his other organs while his tumor is irradiated--the technician denies this and claims he is safe since the radiation is focused. Why then, does the technician himself leave and close behind him a shielded door? To protect himself. I know all of us who have undergone test after test with radioactive dyes and x-ray after x-ray, all of them essential (or so we hope), wonder when that will catch up with us or if it already has (precancerous tumors, anyone?).

Hurt does well at capturing the subtle but clear emotions of a patient enduring tests and surgeries, wondering, "What is happening to me? What will happen to me?" None of us would subject ourselves unnecessarily to the pain, fear, indignities of the medical system, nor if we could help it, to the coldness of a system that only increases the anxiety.


Lene Andersen said...

My doctor was a patient a few years ago - something that was never actually said to me, but I'm at the clinic so much, I figured it out. When she came back, I had to bite my tongue to not ask what it was like from the other side. She's a great doctor, but bet she had insights nonetheless...

FridaWrites said...

I want to know what it's like for them too. I have seen a few doctors, white coats and all, at one big complex sit in one another's waiting rooms for appointments. My rheumatologist mentioned one arthritis medicine that works for him, which explains a lot of his deep level of understanding, though like yours, he's compassionate anyway.