Spring and all

DAB What’s New Apr 6, 2018

Spring and all

3476 words

 

One.

Spring and All is a collection of work in the early writing career of William Carlos Williams, a New Jersey general practitioner in the first half of the past century. The slim volume is an odd collection of alternating prose and free verse, best known for a poem that begins, “By the road to the contagious hospital…” A recent edition of the work includes an introduction by CD Wright with a phrase comparing Williams to an earlier poet from New Jersey, Walt Whitman. “Like Whitman, he [Williams] would gradually come to a great human understanding, an apprehension that eluded most of his peers.” [Spring and All. WC Williams. New Directions Book, 2011.]

Published in 1923, Spring and All came during a time that strained human understanding, juxtaposed between WWI and the Influenza Epidemic that preceded it, and the Great Depression a decade later. Only one year before Spring and All, TS Eliot published The Waste Land, a more obscure and academic poem with complex literary references and snippets of multiple languages. The landscape that Williams presents is not quite so bleak, nor is April (spring) quite so cruel. Still, the Williams terrain is far short of a Disneyland, although some promise is held out as “sluggish dazed spring approaches…” Williams embraced the season cautiously, feeling perhaps some recovery from the recent devastations of war and epidemic, thankfully unaware of the impending economic catastrophe that ran from 1929 through most of the 1930s. In much of the work Williams conveys an ominous sense of mankind’s tendency toward self-destruction. [Above: by the path to the Frankel Cardiovascular Center; below, Williams, Wikipedia.]

Whatever constraints the world may bring to bear, spring is generally a season of optimism and refreshment. After a rough winter in much of the northern hemisphere including North America, Europe, Russia, Japan, and Korea, we are glad for spring and all it brings.

[Above: Signs of spring at home, early daffodil and tiny blue flowers sprouting with a few flecks of overnight snow. April, 1, 2018.]

 

Two.

We pursue that idea of a “great human understanding” in the practice of medicine, an understanding never fully realized, but one that grows even as challenged by the practicalities of each day and the idiosyncrasies of each patient. Physicians “take histories” and examine evidence in pursuit of authentic narratives that allow them to understand the conditions and needs of their patients.

Using the phrase, the practice of medicine, the final word medicine seems increasingly parochial and archaic. In this era of specialty healthcare, “the team” has supplanted the solo practitioner and the term medicine, implies a drug or a specific branch of learning and practice itself more than encompassing all of healthcare. Reference to the practice of medicine is parochial in that it excludes other essential practitioners or binds them up within the terminology of my branch of healthcare.

Yet, the practice of medicine has a comforting ring to it, recalling Hippocratic times when the practitioner’s responsibilities were outlined in a sacred oath and the profession of medicine was as much art as science (observation and reasoning). The historic sense of the professional calling of a doctor tending to a patient worked well up through much of the last century, exemplified by horse and buggy house calls, Norman Rockwell’s depictions, Albert Schweitzer’s humanitarian work, and Marcus Welby’s television dramatizations. The one-on-one relationship of a practitioner to a patient is still essential to excellent healthcare and it is a relationship that offers magical moments for greater human understanding. The dilemma in modern healthcare is that this special duality must find a place within the great tent of the team.

These last thoughts beg a big question – do our students and successors understand the earlier eras of healthcare that today’s healthcare is predicated upon?  Do they know who Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, and Lister were, or what they achieved? Do our students know of Norman Rockwell, Albert Schweitzer, or Marcus Welby? Should they know these things and how would they know of them? Today’s medical education, indeed all of healthcare education, falls short of the mark in teaching the history and context of healthcare. To some degree this should have been the job of higher education (we used to call it liberal education), but the need in medical school and residency education is even more acute. Without history and context, it’s hard to find values that are so essential to human understanding.

 

Three.         

Morel quandaries. Spring is morel time in Michigan. These wild and mysterious mushrooms defy all human efforts to cultivate and industrialize them. Experienced mushroom hunters, such as our friend and neighbor Mike Hommel, are skilled at finding and accurately identifying morels, and there are few things better on the palate than the end result of his searches.

[Above & below: morels]

Mushrooms, although not morels, play a pivotal role in the current film, Phantom Thread, but no more should be said for those who have yet to see this strangely elegant period piece and psycho-drama.

The morel (genus Morchella) evolved from a yeast only as recently as 20,000 years ago, according to some authorities, although others claim it is an ancient cup fungus as old as 129 million years (at this point, science has only deepened the mystery). Many morel species exist, perhaps 60, having distinctive and highly polymorphic honeycomb configuration allowing effective camouflage as pine cones. Morels have some relationship to recent fires and decaying fruit trees, but the exact formula of conditions for them to prosper remains elusive. The morel supports a multimillion dollar industry business of hunting and gathering. Had William Carlos Williams ever experienced morels, they surely would have figured in his Spring and All landscape: “Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees…” Morels are of some spring’s mysterious marginalia, happy little surprises of the season and all.

 

Four.

Daily practicalities confront and confound everyone, navigating their lives and work, and physicians do not get a free pass from them. In the horse and buggy era, a house call was no easy matter, given the inertia to leave a comfortable home at inconvenient moments, saddle up horse and a buggy, and then set off to the patient’s home. Electronic medical records among many other systemic constraints offer newer barriers to many practitioners today, and even those facile with keyboard medicine find they have traded spontaneous interactions with patients for new formulaic work flows of check lists, drop down menus, smart sets, and the lure of cutting and pasting.

Patients as well as healthcare providers must also deal with modern daily practicalities that are impracticalities, more often than not. Matters of finding time from work, transportation, parking, insurance forms, questioning at front desks, forms to fill out, and the incessant repetition of one’s story to an array of healthcare workers dampens the spirit of the human soul. Yet, an ultimate audience with a single healthcare provider (I use this more inclusive term because there are a number of categories of us) is usually a moment of immeasurable importance for patients, who are hopeful for someone to listen carefully to their narratives and gain an authentic understanding of their stories, their histories, instead of processing them into checklists and pre-written sentences and dot-phrases.

 

Five.

Williams began Spring and All with an admission of mixed optimism and inadequacy as a writer:

“If anything of moment results – so much the better. And so much the more likely will it be that no one will want to see it.”

Writers are vulnerable to mistakes and criticism of their work (criticism of themselves as people!) comes with the territory. Writers must accept that they will make mistakes and that some readers in their audience will find their work erroneous in parts or lacking in other ways. It may sting when errors are discovered, but that is a good thing in that correction (peer review, if you will) makes the product better and sharpens the writer’s own fact-checking and proof-reading going forward.

Criticism of style, argument, or quality of thought is a more painful challenge. Good criticism can sharpen an author, although some criticism will be wrong, misdirected, or even malicious. A writer has to hear it all, in the hope of learning and fine-tuning the craft of thinking and writing. Williams, in his writings, put himself “out there” for the world to inspect, criticize, fault, or praise. Some factor in his psyche compelled this expression of art, a factor closely tied to the art of his medical practice.

Spring and All is a quirky and complex collection of prose and poetry. Williams was around 40 years old when this was published and no sensitive novice. Yet he opened the work by admitting that he was not fully up to the task of appreciating and expressing that “great human understanding.” Furthermore, he revealed his vulnerability to criticism.

“There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world. If there is an ocean it is here. Or rather, the whole world is between: Yesterday, Tomorrow, Europe, Asia, Africa, – all things removed and impossible, the tower of the church at Seville, the Parthenon.

What do they mean when they say: ‘I do not like your poems; you have no faith whatsoever. You seem never to have suffered nor, in fact, to have felt anything very deeply…’”

Williams, like other physician-writers, double dip into the conundrum of human understanding in that they are simultaneously medical practitioners and writers, allowing each craft to fuel the other. It is astonishing that we don’t embrace the study of major physician-writers like Williams during medical training with the rigor that we rightly insist upon for other relevant topics such as genetics and pharmacology.

 

Six.

Hall of corrections. Last month I did a disservice to John Hall (Nesbit 1970), misattributing his practice to the Traverse City area, when in fact he worked in Petoskey. Ward Gillett (Nesbit 1985) set me straight. On the other hand, Tom Hall (Cleveland Clinic), who passed away in 2002 practiced urology in Traverse City, and Bob Hall (Wayne State University) also practiced urology in Traverse City. None of these urologists is directly related, although they and I and you are all cousins, according to a quirky book, It’s All Relative, by AJ Jacobs, who writes that all humans go back in time 8,000 great grandparents ago to a common pair of human ancestors who “hunted, gathered, and vigorously reproduced on the plains of Africa about 200,000 years ago.” [AJ Jacobs It’s All Relative, Simon & Shuster, 2017. P. xi.]

John Hall trained here at the University of Michigan exactly at the mid-point in our urology centenary and reminds me that he is thus the “fulcrum” of the Michigan Urology story. Knowledge and technology changed urology over the course of its century, but our mission and values have been constant and will likely remain so in the next iteration of departmental leadership.

 

Seven.

Blind eye. On an April day in 1801, a few days earlier in the month than today, the Battle of Copenhagen launched an enduring metaphor. The phrase of turning a blind eye is attributed to Admiral Horatio Nelson, of the British Royal Navy who had been blinded in one eye earlier in his career. The story goes that during the April Battle in 1801 his superior admiral, the cautious Sir Hyde Parker in charge of the overall battle and sensing defeat, signaled Nelson’s forces to discontinue their action. Nelson was a subordinate but more aggressive admiral and when told of the signal flag message, lifted a telescope to his blind eye and claimed that he did not see an order to desist. [Above: Nicholas Pocock, The Battle of Copenhagen, 2 April 1801, Wikipedia.]

The metaphor took on a life of its own and today would come to be called a meme – an idea, image, or behavior that spreads in a biologic fashion like a gene, replicating and modifying itself within and across cultures and times. The meme neologism is a contribution of Richard Dawkins, worth discussing at a later time.

Blind Eye is the title of a book by James Stewart, an investigation of the true story of a young physician who, for likely psychopathic reasons, poisoned or otherwise killed hundreds of patients and others until apprehended by the FBI. The title comes from the educators in academic medicine who turned blind eyes to his aberrant behavior. That story closely mirrors an earlier true story of a physician, involving Michigan Medical School graduate Edward Mudgett of the class of 1884, who went to Chicago after getting his MD, changed his name to HH Holmes and similarly dispatched scores of people for personal gain or oddly-derived pleasure. Eric Larson told that story in bestselling book, Devil in White City. I read both cautionary tales during a dark interlude in our own Michigan Urology story 20 years ago. Since Admiral Nelson, the phrase has become ubiquitous in English, you can hear it used early in the film, Black Panther.

 

Eight.

Certainties in life, April 15 for example. The author of the phrase claiming only two things are certain in life may never be known, but this is an obvious and nearly universal belief, cynical as it is. Most of us can’t seem to get around taxes, this month most particularly, and none of us will avoid the other absolute. Mortality always trumps economics.

It’s easier to confront economic issues than the mortal one and for an economist, life is viewed from the perspective of supply and demand tensions and balance sheets. Everything else, outside the economic issues, is a matter of “externalities.” The problem with economic models is that most of what really matters to people in the real world is reduced to those externalities. One can argue that Adam Smith’s book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, suggested that economic wealth derived from all the externalities of the people, social groups, and markets working together. Economic wealth cannot be isolated from the externalities that create it.

Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, but Smith’s more astonishing book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, came earlier in his career, in 1759 when he was only 36 years old. Permit a repetition here of the signature thought from that work.

“Howsoever selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Smith’s belief in mankind’s better nature preceded and likely superseded his ideas about the wealth of nations and the human economic model that today would be described as homo economicus, wherein human choices are primarily those of self-interest in daily life and in commercial markets, as he justifies in the following quote from the 1776 book.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantage.”

Differing ideologies can exist harmoniously in the head of one person because human life is complex and not reduced to simple models. Its daily practicalities demand both functioning markets of commerce, where self-interest can rule the day if rules and opportunities are fair, existing on a bed of humanity anchored by kindness, kinship, and other characteristics of human civilization that have defined our species and allowed it to grow.

 

Nine.

            Spring, now and then. Emerging from a challenging winter, spring brings welcome change. When the general practitioner from Patterson, New Jersey published his collection in 1923, the specialties of medicine, the specialties of all of healthcare, were just starting to express themselves. Simultaneously serving as Dean of the Medical School, Professor and Chief of Surgery, and the University of Michigan urologist, Hugh Cabot was building a 1000 bed university hospital that would define the emerging medical specialties and initiate a urology residency training program that would come into fruition three years later with Charles Huggins and Reed Nesbit as Michigan’s first urology trainees.

After Cabot was fired by the Regents in 1930, Nesbit expanded the training program and would train 77 individuals including Jack Lapides who trained an additional 64. McGuire continued the process, for another 42 residents and fellows. Intervals of Bart Grossman and Joe Oesterling followed with another 8 and 16 trainees. Jim Montie, who led Michigan Urology to departmental status, trained 47 and with our graduation this spring 41 residents and 34 fellows will have been trained here under the present era of leadership, at last count. At this point I don’t know if Cabot trained any others besides Reed Nesbit and Charles Huggins, so the count of Michigan urology trainees stands at 329 to date.

This July a new set of residents and fellows will continue the traditional of urology education in Ann Arbor.  The residents will be: Kathryn Marchetti of the University of Michigan, Kyle Johnson from University of South Carolina, Javier Santiago from Baylor Medical School, and Roberto Navarrete from Wake Forest School of Medicine. Our new fellows will be: Guilia Lane from University of Minnesota (FPMRS) and Jeffrey Tosoian from Johns Hopkins Hospital (SUO).

Our new residents will complete their program in 2023, a full century after the spring of William Carlos Williams. They will continue a path of medical service that began well before Hippocrates. In their own careers and in their own unique fashions they will follow William Carlos Williams in search of a greater human understanding to alleviate illness and suffering. Evolving therapeutic tools, as attractive and incredible as they are, will always be secondary to the human understanding that deploys or restrains them. We hope to inspire the class of 2023 and our fellows to grow their capacities for human understanding just as they grow their knowledge and skills throughout their careers. That understanding will never be complete, but it can grow experientially, patient-by-patient, and humanely without being co-opted by the formulaic encounters of electronic medical record and artificial intelligence systems.

 

Ten.

Art Can Help is the name of a short book I recently found in Washington, DC, at the National Gallery of Art. With summer and our annual Chang Lecture on Art and Medicine (Thursday, July 19) soon ahead, I couldn’t resist the purchase. The author, Robert Adams, is a well-respected photographer and a superb writer and critic (photo below, Wikipedia). Coincidentally, like Williams, he came from New Jersey. This little volume is a series of short essays on a number of photographs, but is introduced by comments on two familiar Edward Hopper paintings. The title is provocative – help what, help how? Clearly the answer is up to the reader, but as I processed the book, it seemed that Adams intended to show how art (visual art, in this case) brings us closer to that great human understanding. It is a book I’ll return to, adding more and more marginalia and end-page references. [Art Can Help. Yale University Press, 2017.]

Let me close this monthly essay with two passages from Adams, reproduced with his permission.

            “Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning is a picture upon which to depend. It is affirmative but does not promise happiness. It is calm but acknowledges our failures. It is beautiful but refers to beauty beyond our making.”

These four sentences offer an astonishing take on a well-known image, offering the ideas of depending on a picture, finding affirmation and calmness, the slightly buried idea of truth (not promising happiness, acknowledging failures), and the concept of beauty. Adams reminded me of a line in Spring and All by Williams: “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow.”

Toward the end of the book Adams inspects work by American photographer Anthony Hernandez, invokes the name of another great photographer from an earlier era, and affirms the importance of our choice to care:

            “Alfred Stieglitz said that ‘all true things are equal to one another’, and in that he spoke for most artists. They are convinced, despite having to sort through daily practicalities by triage, that everything is of immeasurable consequence…

For Anthony Hernandez, everything really means everything – a chair made of broken drywall, a fishing place where one might not want to eat the catch, a platinum-colored wig, … and everything means everyone – a woman with flowers in her hair, a man with a boxer’s broken face, an officer worker alone at noon with a book…

Why on the evidence of pictures is everything important?

First, because we are part of it all … our part being to be blessed with language that enables us to stand outside ourselves and make choices. We can choose to be caring.”

 

[Window box, Tradd Street, Charleston, SC.]

Thanks for reading Matula Thoughts this April, 2018.

David A. Bloom, University of Michigan, Department of Urology, Ann Arbor

 

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