Every pre-med student at Duke should watch the documentary “A Lion in the House.” A 2007 Primetime Emmy winner, it is available for rental on both YouTube and Amazon. It follows five children and their families over the course of six years as they go through pediatric cancer treatment. The children and parents come from divergent socioeconomic, educational and cultural backgrounds, and their stories are each unique. The documentary gives a glimpse, albeit small, into what it’s like to be a childhood cancer patient or the parent of such a patient. As someone who lived what this documentary showcases, I cannot think of anything else a student could experience—absent being a cancer patient or caregiver him or herself—that could provide a more holistic understanding of how illness impacts both patients and families, both inside the hospital and especially outside of it.
Fair warning though—in case it isn’t already obvious—this documentary will not be a wholly pleasant viewing experience. Not all of the children profiled survive. To this day my mother has purposely chosen not to watch it, and I understand why. It was actually filmed at the same hospital at which I underwent my chemotherapy regimen, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. When I viewed it, I could not help but experience déjà vu, flashbacks and feelings of inspiration and uneasiness.
I don’t know much about Duke’s pre-med curriculum or medical school curricula for that matter. From what I’ve observed, Duke does a great job of preparing its students to succeed in certain ways—to get into excellent medical schools and become skilled and knowledgeable doctors in the service of society. That being the case, I do not know of anything Duke does, nor do I think there is really much it can do, to prepare its future doctors for how to handle the social ramifications of their work.
Imagine telling a young girl she has cancer. Where do you start? Imagine telling her mother or father. This is even more difficult. Imagine having to prescribe a medicine, knowing full well it will have negative side effects that last a lifetime—yet also knowing the patient must take it to survive. How do you break the news? A lot happens in the hospital that you can witness. But how do you know, if you ever really can, the effects of your work—the medicines you will prescribe, the surgeries you will conduct or the news you will deliver—on the home life of the patient and his or her family? The brunt of the impact is not going to be isolated solely to data collected in a patient’s file or demonstrated in his physical health. There are mental, emotional and spiritual ramifications to nearly everything you will do that mostly play out when the patient leaves the hospital room or surgery table.
Duke might teach you chemistry, biology and physics. It might make you feel confident that you have the skills necessary to understand the finer details and workings of the human body. But it cannot prepare you for these relational aspects of the medical profession. And from the patient side of things, I can tell you a doctor’s bedside manner and ability to connect with you matters as much as the scientific knowledge he or she might possess. For those of you going through medical school applications right now, take heed or heart—I would choose for my oncologist, any day of the week, a doctor with a good bedside manner and a “mid-tier” medical school degree over a Harvard educated doctor with an unfeeling persona. In an ideal world, aim for the best of both, but don’t ever discount the value of the former to your chosen profession.
This is why you should watch “A Lion in the House.” I was blessed—truly, honestly blessed—to have an oncologist and nurses who excelled in all respects. To this day, when I go back for a simple yearly check-up, a part of me feels as though I’m visiting old family. But I have witnessed and experienced the opposite, and it can make a patient’s life—as well as that of his or her family members—miserable. “A Lion in the House” will show you the practice of medicine in a fuller sense than you can get from any book you might read or nearly any summer internship you might complete.
What pre-med students ultimately need to do is strive not just to learn about science but about people. Go to parties. Listen to stories. Support friends through tough times. It doesn’t matter that you got an A in organic chemistry when you make the mother of a cancer patient cry for lack of verbal finesse, thereby breathing life into the latent fears she holds in her heart concerning her child’s future. Learn how to diagnose, yes. Learn how to research. Learn how to slice open stomachs, extract tumors and sow it all back up again, but do not forget to learn empathy. Watch “A Lion in the House” and remember, as much as you learn how to treat the body, do not forget to learn how to treat the soul.
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Monday. Send Daniel a message on Twitter @DanielFStrunk.