“Life is short, and the Art so long; the occasion fleeting; experience fallacious; and judgment difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and the externals, cooperate.”
–attributed to Hippocrates, c. 400 B.C.E.
The award-winning author of How We Die and The Art of Aging, venerated physician Sherwin B. Nuland has now written his most thoughtful and engaging book. The Uncertain Art is a superb collection of essays about the vital mix of expertise, intuition, sound judgment, and pure chance that plays a part in a doctor’s practice and life.
Drawing from history, the recent past, and his own life, Nuland weaves a tapestry of compelling stories in which doctors have had to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Topics include the primitive (and sometimes illegal) procedures doctors once practiced with good intentions, such as grave robbing and prescribing cocaine as an anesthetic (which resulted in a physician becoming America’s first cocaine addict); the curious “cures” for irregularity touted by people from the ancient Egyptians to the cereal titan John Harvey Kellogg and bodybuilder Charles Atlas; and healers grappling with today’s complex moral and ethical quandaries, from cloning to gene therapy to the adoption of Eastern practices like acupuncture.
Nuland also recounts his most dramatic experiences in a forty-year medical career: the time he was called out of the audience of a Broadway play to help a man having a heart attack (when no other doctor there would respond), and how he formed a profound friendship with an unforgettable–and doomed–heart patient. Behind these inspiring accounts always lie the mysteries of the human body and human nature, the manner in which the ill can will themselves back to health and the odd and essential interactions between a body’s own healing mechanisms and a doctor’s prescriptions.
Riveting and wise, amusing and heartrending, The Uncertain Art is Sherwin Nuland’s best work, gems from a man who has spent his professional life acting in the face of ambiguity and sharing what he has learned.
In these essays reprinted, for the most part, from the American Scholar, Yale clinical surgery professor Nuland ponders various aspects of the practice of medicine and patient care. Opening the collection by urging his colleagues toward introspection and self-awareness, Nuland stresses that doctors make life-and-death decisions based on their own emotions, strengths, insecurities and very human needs. In another essay concerning human cloning and manipulating DNA to achieve human immortality, the author suggests we put the brakes on radical technologies whose uncertain consequences we have only begun to contemplate. On a trip to China, Nuland is intrigued by a thyroid operation performed under acupuncture where the patient was wide awake and smiling and suffered no anesthetic aftereffects after a two-and-a-half-hour excavation of her neck. Elsewhere, in an essay on grief written shortly after 9/11, Nuland calls Islamic fundamentalism "a sickness of the soul," and in the book's final entry, he himself grieves over a cardiac patient who died while waiting for a new heart. Although solid and perceptive, these essays are also occasionally flowery and verbose, and do not offer the rich insights of the author's bestselling How We Die.