“Medicine and the novel”: a short story

Sue Wootton

sitting under a treeMedicine went to the doctor. “What brings you here today?” asked the doctor.

“I’m limping,” said Medicine. “My right side is strong, but my left side is weak. I’m tired but I can’t sleep. I never feel refreshed. I’m exhausted. I have everything I need but I’m not content. I don’t know what I want. I can’t see the wood for the trees.”

“When was the last time you sat under a tree?” asked the doctor.

“I don’t have time to sit,” said Medicine.

“But yet, you long to sit?” suggested the doctor gently.

“Yes,” whispered Medicine, going red, for this was a shameful admission. The doctor tested Medicine’s reflexes, and ran blood tests. Everything was normal, so there was nothing wrong.

Medicine sought a second opinion from another doctor. The second doctor ran the same tests and all the answers came back normal.

“How do you feel?” asked the doctor.

“I’m mostly numb,” said Medicine.

“I see,” said the doctor, reaching out a hand to place a finger on Medicine’s pulse at the wrist. The doctor looked into Medicine’s face, and then both Medicine and the doctor closed their eyes. There was several minutes of silence, while the doctor listened for was going on beneath the skin. Medicine sighed. They opened their eyes.

“You are almost completely dispirited,” said the doctor. “I’m referring you to a specialist.” The doctor gave Medicine a card. Medicine looked puzzled, and then annoyed.

“Yes, it’s a library card,” said the doctor. “Read a novel and I’ll see you again in a month.”

Medicine limped out of the doctor’s surgery. What kind of treatment was this! Medicine almost threw the library card in the bin, but a little voice within cried out: “Please, try it.”

“What a waste of my valuable time,” said Medicine, but limped off to the library as instructed. Medicine picked up the smallest novel on the nearest shelf. It was called My Name is Lucy Barton and it was by an American novelist called Elizabeth Strout. It started like this:

There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in hospital for almost nine weeks. This was in New York City, and at night a view of the Chrysler Building, with its geometric brilliance of lights, was directly visible above my bed. During the day, the building’s beauty receded, and gradually it became simply one more large structure against a blue sky, and all the city’s buildings seemed remote, silent, far away. It was May, and then June, and I remember how I would stand and look out the window at the sidewalk below and watch the young women – my age – in their spring clothes, out on their lunch breaks; I could see their heads moving in conversation, their blouses rippling in the breeze. I thought of how when I got out of the hospital I would never again walk down the sidewalk without giving thanks for being one of those people, and for many years I did that – I would remember the view from the hospital sidewalk and be glad for the sidewalk I was walking on.”

My Name is Lucy Barton“Oh, that’s what I feel like!” said Medicine. “Disconnected. Stuck. Not part of the flow of life. Can’t feel the breeze on my face, can’t talk to people! How did she get out of there?”

Medicine couldn’t help but follow Lucy’s story. The language itself drew Medicine on: the words were carefully chosen and the sentences had style and rhythm. Medicine had forgotten you could use language like this. It was charming, it charmed open places in Medicine’s mind that had been closed since early High School. Medicine’s mind began to hum and sparkle. It was an absolutely delicious sensation, as if Medicine was deeply connected with another mind; as if the language itself was coaxing feelings and thoughts into life.

Medicine finished the novel but the novel had not finished with Medicine. At unexpected times, night and day, on the point of sleep or in the middle of a difficult consultation with a patient, moments from the novel burst into Medicine’s mind. The bit about Lucy Barton’s doctor who “wore such a gentle sadness on his shoulders”, for example, and the bit after Lucy gets out of hospital when she has to see her doctor for check-ups all the time, and tries to dress nicely for him because:

In his office he had people in his waiting room, people in his examining rooms, then in his own office, a sort of conveyor belt of many kinds of human material.”

There were illuminations in it, shiny insights about living – not definitive answers, more moments of clarity in which everything meshed, like the bit where Lucy recalls the man she nearly married, but didn’t:

He asked what we ate when I was growing up. I did not say “Mostly molasses on bread.” I did say, We had baked beans a lot”. And he said, ‘What did you do after that, all hang around and fart?” Then I understood I would never marry him. It’s funny how one thing can make you realize something like that. One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about one’s past, or one’s clothes, but then – a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh.”

The novel accepted paradox, complexity, uncertainty and doubt. It gave Medicine a way to get the measure of a range of vital qualities that Medicine had got into the habit of overlooking, “central aspects of human life” like “hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honour, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”

At the end of the month, it was immediately obvious to the doctor that Medicine’s limp was less pronounced.

“How do you feel?” asked the doctor.

“I feel,” replied Medicine, and this was said proudly, without shame.

“And how is your strength?” asked the doctor.

Better,” said Medicine, with some surprise.

“Ah,” said the doctor. “That’ll be your Wisdom coming back.”


Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus. This story is an extract from “What’s Hot in the Medical Humanities”, a talk given to the Otago Institute in July 2017. Sue is speaking on “Bibliotherapy: Books as Medicine” at the Dunedin City of Literature Creative Cities Southern Hui, on 29 November 2017.

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