Doctor Ken and the Visible Man

Published in Huffington Post, 19th March 2012


On the morning of my seventh birthday my hands trembled as I tore the wrapping paper from a big box. Dad was beaming with the sort of smile that meant I was about to be spoiled rotten. Finally, I thought, a friend for my Barbie Nurse with her crisp, white cap and hot water bottle. Surely Doctor Ken was inside the box with his surgical mask and silver stethoscope, his black medical bag emblazoned with the letters MD. He would soon be taking Barbie out on the town to celebrate–I wasn’t sure what yet, but I’d come up with something.

My eyes welled up with tears as they came to rest not on the muscular body of Doctor Ken, but on a see-through Visible Man who claimed he would reveal to me “The Wonders of the Human Body–From Skin to Skeleton.” Along with a clear shell and heart-shaped stand came vital organs that I could “assemble and replace.” All this accompanied by an illustrated handbook written by “Medical Authorities in Everyday Language.” Barbie Nurse and I were devastated.

I maintained my distance from this plastic Visible Man. Yet somehow, there he stood, on my desk, spilling his vintage guts, until well after I graduated from medical school. Lately, I’ve been missing him.

In my profession it is vital to be able to see inside the body. I don’t mean with a surgical laparoscope or some fancy MRI scanner–not to say these aren’t extremely helpful tools–but rather to have the ability to understand the implied, to hear the unspoken, in a patient. To read the body as a text.

Every patient is a walking poem and doctors must be able to read between the lines in order to fully understand them. They can’t rely solely on anatomy textbooks and machines–on a list of symptoms. They must have keen skills of observation, an ability to understand subtext, to do careful character studies, to closely examine narrative in order for their patients to become truly visible. They must always seek out the unseen, listen for intrinsic rhythms.

One could say the same thing about a writer. Indeed, it’s no wonder that doc-lit is almost becoming a genre of its own. W. Somerset Maugham, one in a long line of physician-writers, always maintained that he did not “know a better training for a writer than to spend some years in the medical profession.” And Jerome Groopman, author of the influential How Doctors Think, has pointed out that “a physician works at the border between science and the soul. . . The wise doctor probes not only the organs of his patient but also his feelings and emotions, his fears and his hopes, his regrets and his goals.” A writer comes to know and understand her characters in much the same way.

I never did end up getting a Doctor Ken. By the time my eighth birthday came around, I asked for a Hula Hoop instead. But all these years later, I still find myself thinking about the Visible Man–his removable parts, his white liver, pearly lungs and pale brain–whenever I’m tempted to look for shortcuts during a consultation. Endless paperwork, frantic phone calls, and (too often neglected) family duties can do that to a doctor. When I’m writing, the Visible Man is a reminder to keep focus on what usually remains unseen, to gaze into the subterranean realm of my subjects. After all, that’s where the real treasures lie.