Palliative Care Doctor Sunita Puri on Moving Towards the Difficulty in Ourselves
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, we revisit our conversation between Dr. Sunita Puri and Roxanne Coady as they discuss her latest book, That Good Night, out now in paperback from Penguin Press.
From the episode:
Dr. Sunita Puri: I think that having that reserve of inner strength does not come easily to me. And I’ll be very honest. I have days where I’ll lose a bunch of people or I’ll fight with other doctors. I shouldn’t say fight but maybe strongly challenging colleagues about what our plan is for someone. And when I can’t help a situation in the way I wish I could, I go home and I cry. Or I go into a bathroom stall at work and I cry. I really try to abide by what I tell my patients and their families, which is that don’t deny yourself the emotions you feel because if we bottle it up, we can get sick in one way or another.
Roxanne Coady: Sunita, one of the things that as I’m listening to you is, I don’t imagine you’d be able to do what you do without being able to acknowledge what it’s doing to you, right? Because there has to be so much humanity and so much being in touch with emotions to do what you do. If you weren’t in touch, I don’t know how you deliver on what palliative care is supposed to do. I mean, it seems that way.
Dr. Sunita Puri: I think you’re absolutely right. And I think many of us that choose to go into this aren’t afraid of what comes up within ourselves. And that’s something I’ve noticed with some of my mentors and colleagues I really respect is that we move towards the difficulty, the unacknowledged spaces in medicine, the silences, the things that are not sexy or glamorous, but are vital to helping patients live through the thing that each one of us is going to go through. But we must also move towards the difficulty in ourselves. And let’s face it, the whole trope of a wounded healer, that’s what physicians and caregivers and all sorts of professions are. We come to this work with wounds. The question is, can you reckon with your wounds and, even in fact, use them as a tool to be a better doctor, to be a more present person? So I think what my patients are asking of me is not just my doctoral knowledge, it’s just my humanity. That’s what they really want from doctors in general.
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.