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Physician, Heal Thyself


By Robert Coles | November 1986

Doctors are more likely to kill themselves, or become alcoholics or drug addicts, than those who belong to any other profession — a sad and instruc­tive piece of information. I first heard such obser­vations — and the statistics that go with them — be­ing recited when I was a medical student. Even then I’d begun to notice some further ironies, var­iations on the same theme: pediatricians who spent a lot of time with their young patients, to the point that their own children missed them terribly; somewhat overweight internists who told their hypertensive and obese patients how important it was to lose weight; and not at all to be overlooked, psy­chiatrists who impressed many of us as being quite odd, if not loony.

For a long time I tried to forget such puzzling aspects of medical reality — or, I’d remind myself that we are all limited, if not flawed, in various ways, doctors included, and so my very surprise at what I was seeing bespoke a naïve utopianism at work: the notion that the choice of a particular profession would in some fashion provide a degree of psychological and moral perfection otherwise unobtainable.

When I was a boy I had been taught fifth grade by a teacher, Bernicia Avery, who ought to have cured me of such naïveté. Every day she shar­ed with us her great and abiding obsession — how hard it was for our conduct to match our profes­sional ideals. She put it in this unremarkable man­ner — drew upon, actually, a commonplace saying: “Try hard to practice what you preach.” The first three words, of course, were her rather interesting modification of that old saying. She knew how dif­ficult it can be for any of us, no matter how well intentioned, to achieve the lofty congruence of stated rhetoric with everyday behavior.

I recall the clever question of one of my young classmates; she asked Miss Avery one day whether those who don’t preach really have any reason to be worried — since, after all, they are not hypocrites. Miss Avery was a bit surprised, I still remember, but she soon had thought out her re­sponse — to the effect that we are all preachers in our particular ways, and so there is no escaping the moral mandate of that aphorism, which she had put on a rather large piece of cardboard, pinned on the wall behind her desk. (Often she stood up, pointed at the words on the cardboard and asked us, as a class, to recite them!)

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