Even Doctors Cry by Alvin Reiter, M.D.
As Reviewed by David Elpern, M.D.
A Pathography is a narrative that gives voice and face to the illness experienced. It puts the person behind the disease in the forefront and as such is a great learning opportunity for all caregivers and fellow sufferers.
Arthur Frank classifies illness narratives into three categories:
- Redemption: There is a belief in restorable health.
- Quest: A person journeys through and faces suffering head on in the belief that something is to be gained from the illness experience
- Chaos: When people are overwhelmed by the intensity of their illness, to speak coherently becomes impossible. This is the most frequently unheardnarrative because listening to chaos stories can be painful and frustrating
Alvin Reiter’s book, Even Doctors Cry, is, for the most part, a “chaos” narrative. It tells the story of an E.N.T. surgeon from his upbringing in the Bronx, through college, medical school and training as a head and neck specialist concentrating on cosmetic facial surgery, through personal illness (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) legal problems stemming from billing irregularities, to his wife’s complicated breast cancer trajectory.
In some ways, this book reminded me of Saul Bellow’s picaresque novel The Adventures Augie March. There were many unexpected twists and turns and Dr. Reiter was on a strange and tragic voyage from the Bronx to Beverly Hills. He paints himself as a naif swimming with the sharks of private medical practice and academia. His, and his wife Karen’s, encounters with the medical system are frustrating, maddening, and ultimately tragic. Are they the norm for Doctor-Patient relationships in our country?
Dr. Reiter learned a lot from his misadventures as a physician and a patient. Along the way, he has become a patient advocate. I, for one, would like to hear more of his suggestions on improving communication and care.
Even Doctors Cry is a captivating book that kept my interest from one vignette to the next. Mostly is set in the strange and materialistic venue of Beverly Hills. The small towns that I have spent my professional life in are quite different, however, many of the physicians that I have encountered have doppelgängers in Southern California.
Reiter tells us, “In our society, we trust our tax returns to accountants, our wills to lawyers, our food to farmers, our cars to mechanics. To physicians, though, we entrust our very lives, without which the rest doesn’t matter. As a doctor who loved his practice, his patients and prided himself on the care he provided, I was unprepared to find a medical profession so flawed, falling so short of any level of care, that it caused the death of my wife, Karen.
Earlier, he quotes Ellie Wiesel, “Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story.” Reiter does this in a captivating way and all who read this book will learn important lessons.