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Sunday, February 17, 2008

She wanted the science as well as the magic: Susan Sontag's patient-doctor relationship

David Rieff's story:
When my mother [Susan Sontag] found out she had myelodysplastic syndrome, the terrible blood cancer that eventually took her life, she oscillated between numb despair and acute panic. When she was panicked, nothing those who loved her did or said could calm her down, let alone console her. And yet we soon learned that if we could reach Stephen Nimer, her principal physician at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, by telephone, or if, better still, Dr. Nimer could make the time to see my mother, however briefly, her awful distress would abate – at least for a while.

Observing my mother's exchanges with Dr. Nimer, I could not help wondering why what he said consoled her. For he never played down the lethality of the disease, nor did he hold out false hope. Doubtless, Dr. Nimer's long experience with gravely ill people, the hard-won human skills he acquired over decades of practice, played a central role. The comfort my mother derived from speaking with him was also due to her own very traditional conception of their relationship. She had no time for alternative medicine, nor did she believe that her will would somehow be strong enough to counter the scientific realities.

But my mother's relationship with her principal doctors was only fully effective because in some ways it was shamanistic. Of course, she wanted the science as well as the magic….

Advice: Find a doctor who knows both medical science and the magic of consolation.

Browse for related stories in the index at the very bottom of this page, or read a compassionate care story.

Thanks to David Rieff for the source article in today's NY Times Magazine, drawn from his book, "Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir."

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