Although Dr. Helman’s untimely death did not permit a final editing by this prodigious writer, the published edition is not a book-in-progress. An Amazing Murmur of the Heart: Feeling the Patient’s Beat represents a powerful and persistent continuation of observations and themes that grew out of medical education, close observations of physicians and patients, and his studies in anthropology. All of these forge an approach to patient care that is out of the ordinary.  

As his previous writings suggest, Helman is passionate about medicine but concerned, equally about the emergence of those who fail to listen and to those who might be called techno-doctors.  While professing his appreciation of and attraction to the magic machine or computer, he is mindful of its absence of emotion and ambiguity.  “For this post-human body is one that exists mainly in abstract, immaterial form.  It is a body that has become pure information.” (p. 11)

Chapters are comprised of stories about patients and their care providers, each representing complex facets that defy precise measurement, answers and conclusions.  As Helman steadily notes, the physician must be an archeologist:

Most patients present their doctors with only the broken shards of human life—the one labeled infection, disease, suffering and pain each of these shards is only a small part of a much larger picture….the doctor will have to try and reconstruct the rest. (p.66)

In general, the chapters illustrate first an initial review of medical history, and then specific patient stories.  Of the two, the story is most important.  “Mask of Skin,” for example, begins with an overview of skin from Vesalius to the present: largest organ, stripped bare by anatomists, penetrated by disease, later scanned and X-Rayed, tattooed, re-fitted by surgeons, etc.   That said, Helman the physician-anthropologist, moves from science to specific stories about patients whose skin may cover profound experiences, psychic and otherwise, that might be overlooked by a dermatologist.   Although skin is involved in each of that chapter’s stories, the willing physician must dig deeper in his observations and caring manner to make more profound discoveries.      

In a chapter entitle “Healing and Curing” the author describes an old friend, a practitioner who provides advice about patient care that ”was not included in his medical texts”.  Patients are more than a diagnosis dressed in clothes.  Doctors must make patients “feel seen, listened to, alive”.  Always patients should be regarded as people who happen to be sick.  From his admired colleague Helman learned to be an attentive listener  to the "tiny, trivial, almost invisible things" in patient encounters and stories. To truly heal as well as cure requires the doctor to empathise with what the patient is feeling thereby requiring both an act of imagination and of the heart.  The chapter, of course, continues with with stories that illustrate the points enunciated by his colleague and accepted by his disciple. 


Helman, as a writer, speaker, and teacher was formidable.  His professional training in South Africa and the United Kingdom coupled with unusual, unexpected, and even extraordinary experiences and insights set him apart.   This book, like those written previously, provides students and colleagues with carefully articulated and useful observations.  Mostly and not surprisingly, it is about stories.

Another Helman publication, Culture, Health, and Illness, is a leading textbook that has been translated into other languages.  Readers may also be interested in Helman's other memoir Suburban Shaman.


Hammersmith Health Books

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