DR. HOOK- Hard feelings: Docs share patients' sorrows

The Color Purple is one of my favorite books and movies of all time. In the movie, I was introduced to Whoopi Goldberg and someone you probably have heard of: Oprah Winfrey. Whew! She was a tornado of strength and emotions.

During the announcement of "Best Female Actress in a Supporting Role" at the Oscars, I was looking at her face in the little box when they show all five nominees on the screen. I kept thinking she was going to win it, but then I saw her excitement deflate like the Hindenburg when the Oscar went to Anjelica Huston in Prizzi's Honor. In fact, all 11 nominees in The Color Purple lost! It was as painful as watching Bode try for a gold medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics.

I heard Oprah say that she learned from Steven Spielberg during the filming of The Color Purple how to act down. She would sing African-American spirituals to enter a depressed mood. That is what I love about theater: the moods. Every possible mood can be displayed for the world in theater– unlike science, which tends to be more brainiac.

How about medicine? Do doctors have feelings?

I learned in medical school that there is a healthy detachment between doctor and patient. I still think this is true, but what is the scope of this detachment? I know some doctors who have the personality of cardboard and others who are as compassionate as Mother Theresa. I have heard from other people that some TV viewers and readers think I'm too much of a smart aleck to be compassionate, which ironically... hurts.

I deliver "bad news" almost everyday. For some, the bad news really isn't that bad, and they accept it (and ideally want to work on it!). Others can make a mole into a melanoma!

I dread delivering bad news about issues that are life-threatening or life-ending. "You have cancer." "Your kidneys don't work anymore." "You have early Alzheimers.""Your heart is in very bad condition." Oprah– where are you when I need you?

Do I lose sleep over this? Sometimes I do. I think a lot of doctors do, because we are human. Yes, we can separate out the medical aspects, but many of us develop close bonds with our patients. As a primary care physician, I get to know my patients over the years. And I love to know what's going on in their lives– call me nosey. So when I see my patients suffer or see them scared, it affects me. (I'm sure I'm going to get some criticism from colleagues about this.)

As a doctor, a part of me wants to keep all my patients away from harm. But as a doctor, I also know life is precious and that people get sick, that people die. Medicine is not capable of saving every life or preventing every bad outcome from happening. Nonetheless, it hurts to see "bad" things happen to others.

I wrote an article earlier this year about how some consider me to be the Grim Reaper– with Johnston & Murphy shoes– just waiting to deliver bad news. But I'm not. A mentor of mine in medical school taught me something valuable that I still hold onto to this day. When a patient of mine is very sick, like with cancer, I make sure he knows that I will not abandon him. I will be completely honest about his medical condition, and I will be there to support him. I would hope someone would do the same for me.