The subtitle to this collection of insightful and compassionate essays by gastroenterologist David Watts is: "One Doctor's Reflections on the Oddly Intimate Encounters Between Patient and Healer." Watts provides 48 narratives, most of which concern his patients and are written in the first person. In the preface Watts states "The stories in this book are true" (xv), that he has received permission from his patients, and that he has "disguise[d]" his patients to respect their right to privacy.

The stories cover a range of settings, from Watts's home and locations in the San Francisco Bay area, to the clinic and hospital. They also cover a range of his experience from medical school ("Sylvester" and "Love is Just a Four-letter Word") to his current position as a practitioner and an attending physician at a teaching hospital.

Stories in which Watts clearly situates himself with the patient and details the encounter are most compelling. For example, in the opening essay, "White Rabbits" and later, in "Flu Shot," Watts allows the reader to discover that patience and listening are required to in order for the patient to expose why he or she is truly there. In that space, Watts becomes present for his patient, and one learns that what may initially appear tangential is central to the patient's concern.

Watts writes of some very difficult patients and families, such as a woman who stalks him ("The Stalker's Bridegroom"), a woman who obsesses over caring for her elderly mother ("Home Remedy"), and a woman who demands narcotics ("The Third Satisfaction"). In one of the longer pieces, "Codger," Watts describes an irascible, elderly Jewish patient who skewers just about anyone with his critiques, including Watts's young son, and yet who later exposes his vulnerability by unfolding the tale of his World War II service and discovery of a Nazi death camp. It is because Watts spends time with the Codger and recognizes that the doctor-patient relationship is above all a human relationship that the doctor receives the gift of the story: this terrible experience which informed the rest of the Codger's life.

A few of the vignettes explore the therapeutic potential of poetry. For instance, in "Annie's Antidote" a piano teacher, fearful of endoscopy, asks Watts to recite one of his poems. The poem concerns the tender relationship between Watts and his son and is a metaphor for Watts's patient encounters as well: "for this is one of those moments / that turns suddenly towards you, opening / as it turns, as if we paused / on the edge of a heartbeat. . . " The poem works, the moment opens, and the woman has her endoscopy.


Watts, author of three volumes of poetry, commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and director of several writing workshops, is well versed in the power of words. His writing illuminates not only an incident, but also connections the incident forges with all aspects of one's life. In describing a stricture dilatation procedure Watts writes: "pain rises from his body like vapor, and reluctance swells within me like that cinch that froze my hand once in its arc of anger over my child." ("Stricture" p. 48) By recording the ebb and flow of his own emotions and responses, Watts underlines the importance of that very human and privileged encounter, the doctor-patient relationship.


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Random House

Place Published

New York



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