Doctor/author Groopman (Second Opinions, 2000, etc.) insightfully examines the nature of hope and the role it plays in recovery from illness.
Stories from his medical education and 30 years of practice reveal what New Yorker staff writer Groopman (Medicine/Harvard) has learned about the connections between hope and illness. He was still in medical school when an Orthodox Jewish woman confided in him that she believed her cancer was a punishment from God. “Well prepared for the science [but] pitifully unprepared for the soul,” Groopman was unable to reach out and give her the hope she needed to pursue a course of therapy. Then, as a young resident, he followed an older doctor’s lead in offering false hope to a terminally ill woman, a disturbing experience that subsequently led him to veer too far in the direction of hope-crushing cold facts as a specialist in oncology and hematology. Perhaps the most powerful story Groopman tells is about a professor of pathology who, in full possession of all the grim facts about his stomach cancer, nevertheless held onto hope, persisted in excruciating therapy, and survived. From his patients, the author observed that hope is at the very heart of healing, whether it derives from faith in God and belief in an afterlife or from a personal philosophy that gives meaning to life and mortality. The author’s personal experience of pain, frustration, and despair was also instructive. After suffering severe back pain for 19 years, Groopman followed the advice of a physician to seek relief by changing his beliefs about pain and acting on those new beliefs. Experiencing for himself the physical changes caused by regained hope, he began to question neurologists, experimental psychologists, and others about the biology of hope. He relates their discoveries here, going on to consider why some people can sustain hope but others cannot and clearly delineating the difference between false hope and true hope.
A thoughtful message, movingly yet unsentimentally presented by a physician alert to medicine’s human as well as its scientific side.