A common criticism of modern medicine is that today’s physicians excel in clinical skills, but often lack the personal components so vital to the patient-doctor relationship.
Dr. Blair Grubb would agree.
“It’s my thought that physicians have lost touch with being human,” Grubb, professor of medicine and director of UT’s electrophysiology program, said candidly. “We’ve been trained to treat diseases; we don’t treat people.”
Grubb, a worldwide expert in the area of syncope, or fainting, could be considered medicine’s “Renaissance man.” In a field where professional detachment and clinical efficiency are considered necessary, he’s found that sharing anecdotes, sentiments and snippets from his 29 years in medicine brings a measure of relief.
“All physicians, if they allow themselves, have transformative experiences with their patients,” Grubb explained. “It’s how you think about them at the end of the day that matters. It’s helpful if we allow ourselves to be human.”
Grubb’s reflections about life as a physician have been widely published in professional publications as well as mainstream self-help books. Most recently, his personal essays have appeared in Jewish Stories From Heaven and Earth: Inspiring Tales to Nourish the Heart and Soul; Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living Catholic Faith: 101 Stories to Offer Hope, Deepen Faith, and Spread Love; and Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit.
The Chicken Soup books are meant to inspire and encourage, actions that seem at odds with Grubb’s everyday work environment. Diseases of the heart often go hand in hand with death, a fact that has been explored in his essays.
“While we are told in medical school and residency to show ‘respect for the dead,’ our actions all too often fall far short of this ideal,” Grubb writes in “Washing the Dead.” “We tend to see death as some kind of failure on our part as physicians, rather than the natural or inevitable process that it is.”
Grubb began gathering his thoughts in the form of personal essays after a chance encounter in 1996. In France for a medical conference, he contacted a French physician with whom he’d collaborated years earlier. Grubb’s assistance had helped garner a diagnosis and successful treatment for the French physician’s granddaughter.
The physician’s wife, seriously ill herself, gave Grubb an old Menorah she saved after a Jewish friend was taken by German forces during World War II. The woman didn’t know what to do with the Menorah, which is a meaningful symbol of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.
“When I found out what really happened to the Jews, and how many of the people I knew had collaborated with the Nazis, I could not bear to look at it,” the woman told Grubb, as shared in his essay “It Should Again See Light.” “Yet I kept it, hidden, waiting for something, although I wasn’t sure what. Now I know what I was waiting for. It was for you, a Jew, who helped cure our granddaughter, and it is to you I entrust this.”
“I wrote that essay because I had trouble telling the story,” Grubb said. “I still do.”
“It Should Again See Light” was the first of Grubb’s personal essays to be published. After it appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, it also was featured in a story on National Public Radio.
“I was honored to be featured in that book because my essays appear with essays from people like Elie Wiesel,” Grubb said.
Steadfastly in tune with the cutting-edge advances in medicine, Grubb takes an old-fashioned approach to writing. Putting pen to paper, he usually produces each essay in one sitting. Since he’s done the editing in his head beforehand, most don’t take long.
Grubb’s artistic side has been exhibited in a series of published poems and line drawings, as well. He has plenty of support at home; his daughter is an art student at UT, and his wife, also a physician, has written articles for local publications.
“One of the best things about my job is the ability to share in the lives of other people,” Grubb said. “Physicians have some of the highest rates of burnout, depression and suicide. Reminding myself of the humanity all around me helps me cope.”