The Secret Minds of Doctors: Danielle Ofri’s “What Doctors Feel”


I rarely write book reviews for this blog. Recently, I fell upon a book that compelled me to write one.

Health and medicine play integral, immeasurably important roles in our lives.  And yet, we ask very few questions of our doctors. When we see our physicians, most of us try to get in and out the door as soon as possible, wipe our hands and be done with it. We conceptualize a doctor’s exam as having to do with a physical problem we want to eliminate, not an emotional experience. And very possibly, our doctors are treating us the same way. Just another problem to be solved.

But illness can have significant, even devastating, emotional consequences on patients: anger at the injustice of a disease; shame while lying naked and poked at on a table; sadness at the loss of a limb or a breast; fear at the prospect of a painful procedure.

What about the emotional impact on doctors? Has society allowed for doctors to feel? Or to fail?

The worldview that doctors are superhumans, immune to emotions and mistakes, is exactly what Dr. Danielle Ofri challenges and successfully upends in her valuable new book, What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine (Beacon Press; June 4, 2013). As Ofri demonstrates, drawing upon her own personal experiences and the stories of others, treatment isn’t simply a physical equation. We have read amply, and many of us know personally, about the emotional distress that endures long after a surgery or diagnosis. What we know minimally, if we consider it at all, is the emotional distress that doctors feel on the other end: how fear or grief manifests over time in the lives of doctors; how even bearing witness to a grave illness or mistake can change the way a doctor diagnoses, treats, or cares for us.

What Doctors Feel is extraordinary because it is an argument for a shift in ideology and current perception that is anything but academic in its rendering. Ofri’s characters, herself as one, leap off the page, allowing us to be both doctor and patient (which is, perhaps, the point). Scenes from all angles of medicine, from the classroom to the psychiatry ward to the emergency room, are vividly detailed, sometimes gruesomely, sometimes desolately, and even occasionally, humorously. (As Ofri implicitly asks us, can one be in the business of death and disease without a little laughter?)

What Doctors Feel turns out to be an educational page-turner. There are insights into every field of medical practice, and so much to be learned about how the discipline is taught, as well as the fascinating minutia of disease and the complex labyrinth of treatment. But Ofri is most poignant when describing the spectrum of human emotions that affect doctors, both incidentally and permanently. There is the doctor who witnesses the death of an infant and remains frozen in that moment even while moving through the motions of her medical career; the stricken fear of being a new intern or resident suddenly calling a life or death shot; the anger of being the wronged subject of a malpractice suit; and possibly most compelling, the shame of the doctor who makes a “near-miss” error, or even a fatal mistake. It is in these accounts of the failures of doctors, including her own, where Ofri shows herself to be not only adept as a writer, but also supremely brave. “In most aspects of life,” she writes, “we seem able to […] deal satisfactorily with the good-enough teacher, the good-enough accountant, the good-enough plumber. But there is no room for the good-enough doctor. An error redounds not as a misstep that can be remedied with education, but as an intrinsic incrimination of one’s very being.”

As Ofri proves, emotions are not ancillary details to the practice of medicine, but the tapestry underlying its very art. The best doctors are the truly empathic ones. The most human doctors are those who acknowledge the most base emotions of fear, shame, anger, and grief. To deny emotive response to the grueling realities that medicine mandates, or, as patients, to either forbid or ignore those emotions in our doctors, we do a great disservice to one another, and to our collective health.

About the Author
Danielle Ofri is an attending physician at Bellevue Hospital, and the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, the first literary journal to arise from a medical setting. She is the author of four books, and a regular contributor to the New York Times health section. Visit her website at:

Lee Hartley Carter


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