Konner was a successful anthropologist working at Harvard before he decided to become a doctor, and I was looking forward to reading his unique perspective on medical school. As expected, he does offer a critical eye on medical culture, but his chronic over-sharing distracts from any valuable criticisms he makes.
As I previously blogged, Konner compares his first experience with surgery to “making love to a woman,” and it only gets worse from there. He seems perpetually fixated on women— teachers, doctors, patients— describing how they look and how they make him feel.
The book is divided into sections based on his rotations, and it’s in his pediatrics section where I first noticed how inappropriate Konner’s comments were. While working in the outpatient clinic he finds himself “dallying for a few extra seconds between patients in order to gaze at a patient in the waiting room.”
“She was about fifteen, tall for her age, blue-eyed, with flowing shoulder-length blond hair and a perfectly proportioned face. Her body was, in conventional terms, perfect, and her complexion was a smooth cream color infused with a healthy pink. For the moment at least, I could not remember ever seeing a more beautiful woman, and I longed desperately for the luck to have her (and her mother) in my examining room.”
“All that day, I could not get her out of her out of my mind.”
Are we all remembering the part where he told us the object of his affection is fifteen? I do.
At first I was relieved that said patient did not end up in Konner’s examining room, but my relief was short-lived. The young girl returns to the clinic (she is suffering from headaches) and this time Konner does get a chance to examine her, saying that “routinely putting [his] hand inside her blouse to get the stethoscope into place … seemed like the most outrageous act of sexual exploitation.”
If anything, Konner’s book provides a compelling argument for female nurse chaperones.
Doctors are charged with the unusual task of learning to invade other people’s personal space in order to do their job correctly, and when Konner described telling the medical student support group about his discomfort examining an attractive woman during his first physical exam, it seemed strange that he got no feedback or support. But Konner’s fixation on women is not just confined to patients he has to touch.
He describes a curvy nurse in form-fitting clothing as “not vulgar but clearly sexual,” and said the process by which one of his attractive female colleagues “snaked her catheter around in the patient’s vascular tree was somehow erotic.”
It’s amazing he learned anything in medical school at all. But he did learn a lot and it’s unfortunate that all of the awkward sexual fluff wasn’t edited away to showcase his more interesting lessons.
Having temporarily given up his career as an academic to have a chance to work with his hands, he comes to realize at the end of his clinical year that “practical work that was basically a holding action against a tide of chaos was not necessarily more satisfying than intellectual work that had some hope of making the world a better place.”
Oh yeah, and that the cult of medicine discourages wellness and empathy among doctors. That is a pretty standard chorus from people who write about medical school, and it’s apparently still as true today as it was when Konner was in medical school almost 30 years ago.
After his four years of training, Konner decides against doing a residency. He goes back to work as an anthropologist and writes several more books, making the world a safer place for beautiful fifteen-year-olds everywhere.