The Lost Patient

A Review of Doron Weber's Book 'Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir'
Jerome Groopman
The New York Review of Books

As the second year of medical school drew to a close, our education moved from lectures in the classroom to rounds at the bedside. We assumed the role of apprentices, expected to model ourselves not only on the clinical acumen of the senior physicians, but also on how they communicated with patients.

Each student followed a sequence of assignments to the different wards, and my first months were spent with the surgeons. Despite the grueling hours and heavy workload, the experience was exhilarating. I watched with awe as a woman’s chest was opened, exposing a gritty stenotic aortic valve, which was replaced with a functioning prosthesis. The procedure took many hours, and demanded a precise choreography of care among the heart surgeon, anesthesiologist, and cardiologist. As the last sutures were placed, the resident remarked how it was “a great case.”

While surgery offered the drama of dexterous skills, my next assignment, to internal medicine, prized broad thinking. The aim was to generate comprehensive lists of possible causes for the patient’s symptoms and physical findings, so-called “differential diagnoses.” It was like assembling a large jigsaw puzzle, but you did not receive the pieces all at once: rather, you had to guess which next piece to seek by ordering one diagnostic test or another—should it be a certain X-ray, or a particular serology, or a tissue biopsy? Then you evaluated whether the new piece of data fit and solved the puzzle, or whether more was needed to form a coherent picture. “Great cases” on the internal medicine ward were ample. I recall how our team of residents and students identified a rare form of malaria in a botanist with raging fevers who recently had returned from Africa, and discovered an overlooked lymphoma that was the cause of a patient’s kidney failure. After surgery and internal medicine, I was assigned to pediatrics, and there became frozen in my tracks

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