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Doctor’s book explores kindness,self-reflection

by Ken Satterfield | February 26, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Would you rather be intelligent or kind?

While in medical school, Michael Stein paused at this choice in a research questionnaire. At the time, "intelligent" was the obvious answer, though his career has shown him that the choice he made was probably wrong.

We expect doctors to have solutions for our pains and illnesses, even when we may furnish incorrect or less embarrassing details, or choose to not follow their advice and instructions.

Regardless, we assume our physicians will be unflappable and non-emotional.

In "Accidental Kindness: A Doctor's Notes on Empathy," a collection of essays, Stein shares perspectives from his side of the doctor-patient relationship, one we may often take for granted. From the panic attack he experiences on his first day of medical school in an anatomy class, he freely shares his thoughts and doubts.

His life and perspective is shaped by his father's death at the age of 13 in what he believes is a case of malpractice. Stein still keeps his father's medical records in his desk drawer, sparking an interest in collecting bad doctor stories.

Yet his frustration with Beatirz, a patient whose health is deteriorating from not taking her medications, leads to an outburst in front of her daughter and a crisis of doubt.

After committing errors with two other patients, he decides takes a leave of absence for a month.

During that leave, he has the opportunity for a series of interviews with a surgeon who has permanently disfigured his patient. Was it a mistake or accident?

Though the aftermath continues to inflict pain on both, the patient forgives and refuses to sue, much to the surprise of Stein. Her absolution is an example that allows him to resolve his own pain.

Research shows kindness may lessen anxiety, shorten recovery or result in fewer repeat visits. Kindness can look different to each patient, based on speech, expressions or actions.

It may be a firm statement, a comforting word or pausing to avoid the first thought. Kindness is knowing how to respond to the lying drug addict or the dying patient seeking your opinion.

You'll find interesting and sometimes painful lessons about cultivating genuine kindness here. Perhaps the book's greatest lesson is in self-reflection. In a world that's too often full of outrage and hurtful behavior, kindness should not be limited to your next checkup.

Ken Satterfield is the Circulation Assistant at the Missouri River Regional Library.

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