Becoming a Doctor

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Melvin Konner was in his thirties, with a well-established academic career, when he decided to become a doctor. By the time his training was complete, he had shifted goals again, choosing not to practice medicine, but the experience was not wasted. BECOMING A DOCTOR focuses on the third year of medical school, when classroom instruction is over and the student is thrown into hands-on contact with a bewildering assortment of patients. The glamour of medicine quickly wears off as Konner finds himself up to his elbows in blood, diseased tissue, and body wastes. At first the callous attitude of his mentors shocks him, but he sheds his idealism and grows his own protective shell as he comes to realize the limitations of medical knowledge, the self-destructiveness of many patients, and the nearly infinite depths of human sufferings.

The following excerpts from the book’s “Glossary of Slang” provide eloquent evidence of the attitude of the typical resident and intern at a big hospital: Crispy Critters -- children chronically hospitalized due to third-degree burns over most of their body surface; among the saddest cases in medicine; also known as “toasted toddlers.” Dirtball--A chronic alcoholic, drug abuser, bag lady, or other street person who rarely bathes, has frequent infectious contacts, and is likely to be a walking colony of dangerous microorganisms.

What gives this book its value is the fact that Konner writes from the perspective of a mature and highly educated man who, as an anthropologist, has been trained to observe human behavior. His book is nontechnical and charmingly self-revealing. It consists of a continuous stream of anecdotes, suggesting that it was based on a fairly comprehensive daily journal. Konner’s four years of medical school served a dual purpose: an education as a doctor and an anthropological investigation of a medical teaching facility as a human institution. He deplores the dehumanization of doctor and patient that he observed. “In the cool realms of technology,” he concludes, “we may have succeeded beyond our fondest dreams; now we can afford to, and must, turn our attention to the relatively neglected realms of humanistic medicine.”