Dr. Sunita Puri on the Human Costs of Suffering
In Conversation with Roxanne Coady
on the Just the Right Book Podcast
Doctors are acculturated and socialized to maintain life. Sometimes at all costs, even the human costs of suffering. The relatively new field of palliative care looks for ways that medicine can embrace and relieve the tension of seeking to preserve life while embracing life’s temporality.
This week on Just the Right Book, Dr. Sunita Puri joins Roxanne Coady to discuss her latest book, That Good Night, out now in paperback from Penguin Press.
From the episode:
Dr. Sunita Puri: I had a very unusual upbringing because both of my parents are scientists. My dad is an engineer who likes to think that he is a doctor, and my mom is an anesthesiologist. Both of these people practice in an evidence-based science kind of way, and yet both of them—if you ask them how they got to where they are in life—both of their answers would absolutely be grounded in the language of faith and spirituality. They showed me very early on that God and science are not binaries, that spirituality and science can sit side-by-side in the service of humanity.
My dad was particularly attuned to teaching my brother and I some of these lessons early on, in part because my dad is a master storyteller. … He could tell these stories in a beautiful, convincing way—in Hindi, Punjabi, and English. He taught me that through stories of what life can be and what it cannot, including it cannot be permanent, he really got me at a really young age to think about profound truths. I didn’t get them when I was five years old, but growing up hearing these stories over and over again and having these lessons pointed out to me… You may be sad today, but look at the sky. The sky was cloudy yesterday, and today it is sunny. In the same way, your sadness is going to pass.
Roxanne Coady: Do you think you realized how baked into your brain that notion was, or did you become aware of it as you went through medical school?
Dr. Sunita Puri: I became aware of it as I was going through a training that emphasized survival and extending life, but no real eye to the concepts of suffering and dignity, which are essential to Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. That suffering is part of life, and part of our spiritual reckoning in this life is how we can be with suffering. Medical training was not about that at all, and as I was going through my training I would think back to the days when I would round with my mother, and she would meet with patients who were going to the operating room and she would pray with them. She would ask them what they believed in, and asked them if they wanted to pray before they went in. She would pray before she would go in. There was this nice juxtaposition of God and science that was totally absent in medical school and medical training.
Dr. Sunita Puri is an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California, and medical director of palliative medicine at the Keck Hospital and Norris Cancer Center. She has published essays in The New York Times, Slate, The Journal of the American Medical Association, and JAMA-Internal Medicine. She lives in Los Angeles.
Roxanne Coady is owner of R.J. Julia, one of the leading independent booksellers in the United States, which—since 1990—has been a community resource not only for books, but for the exchange of ideas. In 1998, Coady founded Read To Grow, which provides books for newborns and children and encourages parents to read to their children from birth. RTG has distributed over 1.5 million books.