Physician Discusses Soul's Place in Medicine

Dr. Jerome Groopman, Recanti professor of medicine, spoke about the intersection between science and the soul to a group of 50 people at Hillel last night.

The physician, he said, navigates within the framework of science, but at the same time is in touch with mystery, the complex dimensions of experience that are not readily comprehended.

This "unique perch," as he dubbed it, prompted him to start writing--four years ago for The New Yorker and more recently in his book The Measure of Our Days-- about the emotionally-laden experiences of caring for patients with blood disease, cancer and HIV. These patients, nearing the end of life, arrive at provocative revelations that Groopman treasures.

"The education that was given me by the people I cared for was of another level," he said.

Groopman said he has seen how life offers, even in the very last moments, a kind of healing of the spirit. The role of the physician, he said, is thus clearly grounded in a spiritual dimension, along with a scientific one.

Groopman discussed one of his patients, "Kirk," mentioned in the first chapter of his book. Kirk realized at the end of a battle with kidney cancer how unmeaningful his fast-paced, business-oriented life had been. Such epiphanies, Groopman said, are meaningful to the patient and his family.

After the speech, audience members asked about what Groopman thought was the role of prayer in healing. Groopman said he recognizes the value of faith in healing the spirit, but he was quick to point out its limits.

"Despite being a relatively observant Jew, it's difficult for me to believe in divine intervention," he said.

Groopman said he believes in the coexistence of faith and reason, but does not see them as reconcilable. In his practice, he said, he "compartmentalizes" and does not bring those parts of life in direct contact with each other.

The healing of the soul, he said, is still an essential component in the whole process of enduring a disease. Healing the soul is always possible, he explained, whereas healing the body is not.

Members of the audience said they felt a sense of awe as they listened to Groopman's stories about the moving experiences in his life and work.

"The possibility that you can be a medical doctor and still preserve some of that spirituality and see into people's souls is very inspiring," said Rachel S.C. Friedman '01, who attended the talk and hopes to be a doctor.

Sara N. Goldhaber-Fiebert '97, a first-year at Harvard Medical School, said she was particularly impressed with how Groopman spoke about his patients.

"He was integrating his medical care with a deep knowledge of his patients as people," she said. "As I begin my own medical training, I hope to be able to emulate Dr. Groopman."

Though Groopman has treated patients with fatal illnesses for 27 years, he said the experience has not numbed him. Rather, he said, it has been tiring and emotionally draining.

But the 6-foot-6-inch writer and physician, who said he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every morning, added that he recharges himself in other facets of his life--by spending time with family, swimming or biking and writing.

"Writing is a way of making sense of the whole situation," he said.

Groopman said he is especially invigorated by the work he does in an experimental research lab, which he also runs. The promise of science, he said, gives him the hope that the life-threatening illnesses he witnesses everyday will at some point be curable.