September 20, 2018
A few weeks ago, I
shared with you some of my favourite books including Dr. Atul Gawande’s book, “Better.” In the book’s afterword, my favourite part, Gawande lays out five “Suggestions for Becoming a Positive Deviant,” with the fourth one being “Write Something.” Gawande goes on to say, “What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.”
I doubt I would have accepted Health Quality Council’s invitation to be a contributor to their new blog if I hadn’t read Gawande’s “Better” through to the end. In 2012, one of my blog posts was noticed by Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s “White Coat, Black Art.” Next thing I knew, Brian was flying out to Saskatoon to interview me for his
As I walked him out of St. Paul’s Hospital, Brian told me what he was currently working on: a book called “The Secret Language of Doctors.” I was intrigued, and was probably one of the first people at my local bookstore to buy the book when it was released in 2014. I took it home and started it later that evening.
I found this book to be a hard read. While well written, it didn’t reflect my experience. This is a book about medical slang, mostly attributed to doctors; I had not heard most of the slang described. I sensed a strong “us versus them” view of the world. What Brian had documented clashed with my values. I thought a lot about why this book was written, and what it was actually about: the barriers between all of us, the hurt and exhaustion doctors feel, what happens when physicians feel worn-out, or loss of passion, or a loss of self – I couldn’t land on just one.
Brian’s next book, “The Power of Kindness,” came out this spring and gave me a completely different feeling. I liked this book so much that when I learned Brian was heading back to Saskatoon to speak at
Word on the Street, I made sure to attend his reading. I knew I was in for a special afternoon as soon as the event started. Mayor Charlie Clark’s voice broke with emotion as he introduced Brian to the crowd, referencing one of the beautifully captured stories of empathy inside the book. Over the next 45 minutes, Brian discussed a very personal journey that took him around the world and also within himself as he sought a deeper understanding about the science and art of empathy. Once Brian had finished talking about his own personal journey and learning, a woman stepped up to the microphone and shared a moving story, contrasting how she and her family were treated during the deaths of her father-in-law and her daughter.
Once done his official duties, Brian joined me at a local restaurant to warm up and catch up. This time it was my turn to ask the questions.
Over coffee, I asked Brian if he was surprised how quickly people opened up with deeply personal stories, complete with sadness, anger, grace and kindness. Not at all, he shared. In fact, he said it has become the norm, not the exception, for people to share their emotions and stories with him. People want to connect and share lived experiences. Kindness is something we all want to feel.
I asked Brian what he thought was the connecting thread between “The Secret Language of Doctors” and “The Power of Kindness,” two books that I found to be so different in tone, outlook and message. I was curious about what had happened to him perhaps professionally and personally over the last four years. Why did he decide to write about empathy? Did he think he had lost his kindness? And what brought him back?
Brian talked about the impact of years of working as an ER doctor in one of Toronto’s busy downtown hospitals, the death of his father, and the decisions he and his family needed to make regarding the care of his mother, who seemed to have been disappearing from his world while still living in a care home. Just like our mayor and the woman at the reading, I also found myself wanting to talk about my lived experiences. By exploring kindness, a conversation naturally flowed about how we have changed and grown over the course of our lives and careers. We found many common lows and highs.
Perhaps that is part of the power of kindness: being kind to one another and kind to oneself connects us not only to each other but also to our humanity. We went into health care to care for others, which is a real privilege. It can also be really hard. But by exploring and reflecting on our experiences, we can find common ground.
At the end of his session at the book festival, Brian was asked for advice on how to practice kindness. Here’s what he had to say:
If you’d like to share some of your thoughts and experiences, I’d love to listen. Please contact me at
Dr. Susan ShawChief Medical Officer