Why Compassion Matters

A few weeks ago during a medical writing seminar I teach, Dr. Gerald Friedland, an infectious disease expert, spoke with my undergraduates about caring for AIDS patients in the earliest days of the epidemic.

One of my students asked him this: When there were no treatments, what was there for a doctor to do?

“There’s always something you can do for people,” Dr. Friedland said in his soft-spoken way. He proceeded to explain how he would pull up a chair by the bedside so he and his patients were talking on the same level rather than he literally talking down to them; how he would help families cope with the poor prognosis; how he told the truth even when it wasn’t easy.

Doctors rarely cure diseases, he added. For the most part, they manage them. He told my students that being a good physician means helping patients navigate illness.

The essence of Dr. Friedland’s words reverberated with me when I got home that night and watched the preview of a new documentary to be released March 10 about a woman with frontal lobe dementia, a fatal brain disease.

Frontal lobe dementia is a catch-all term given to a broad category of illnesses that destroy the part of the brain — the frontal lobe — between the ears and behind the eyes. The frontal lobe helps us make decisions, helps us understand the ramifications of our actions, helps us emote, helps us speak. The frontal lobe makes us us.

The illness emerges insidiously, as it did with Laury Sacks, the main character in the documentary aptly titled, Looks like Laury, Sounds like Laury.”
Pre-disease, Laury had been a witty, fast-talking, exuberant writer-actress-mother-wife. She lived about 10 blocks from me on the upper west side of —> Read More