Ailing Hearts and Troubled Minds: An Historical and Narratological Study on Illness Narratives by Physicians with Cardiac Disease

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Abstract

A number of studies show that when doctors become ill, there is often ambiguity in the division of roles and responsibilities in the medical encounter. Yet little is known about how the dilemma of the sick doctor has changed over time. This article explores the experience of illness among physicians by applying an historical, narratological approach to three doctor’s narratives about personal cases of cardiac disease: Max Pinner’s from the 1940s, Robert Seaver’s from the 1980s, and John Mulligan’s from 2015. Drawing on Erving Goffman’s principles of social interaction, I argue that part of the challenge in the analysed narratives is because when doctors seek medical attention for themselves, the ensuing medical ‘drama’ suffers. I compare the three narratives to argue that the experience of becoming a patient while simultaneously remaining a doctor is a challenge that has changed over time. In Pinner’s narrative, the patient identity is both undesirable and inaccessible; in Seaver’s, role ambivalence between doctor and patient is the most salient feature; for Mulligan, his personal rather than professional experience of illness is the overarching theme of the narrative. Finally, I suggest that an awareness of how the medical drama often changes when doctors are patients might prove beneficial both for the doctor-patients and providers of medical care.

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  • Medical Ethics
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Medical Humanities
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2020 Jan 28
Publication categoryResearch
Peer-reviewedYes