Excerpt from How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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How Doctors Think

by Jerome Groopman

How Doctors Think
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 320 pages
    Mar 2008, 336 pages

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This was easier for Anne; the doctor had thrown her a rope and was slowly tugging her to the shore of the present. As she spoke, Falchuk focused on the details of her diet. “Now, tell me again what happens after each meal,” he said.

Anne thought she had already explained this, that it all was detailed in her records. Surely her internist had told Dr. Falchuk about the diet she had been following. But she went on to say, “I try to get down as much cereal in the morning as possible, and then bread and pasta at lunch and dinner.” Cramps and diarrhea followed nearly every meal, Anne explained. She was taking anti-nausea medication that had greatly reduced the frequency of her vomiting but did not help the diarrhea. “Each day, I calculate how many calories I’m keeping in, just like the nutritionist taught me to do. And it’s close to three thousand.”

Dr. Falchuk paused. Anne Dodge saw his eyes drift away from hers. Then his focus returned, and he brought her into the examining room across the hall. The physical exam was unlike any she’d had before. She had been expecting him to concentrate on her abdomen, to poke and prod her liver and spleen, to have her take deep breaths, and to look for any areas of tenderness. Instead, he looked carefully at her skin and then at her palms. Falchuk intently inspected the creases in her hands, as though he were a fortuneteller reading her lifelines and future. Anne felt a bit perplexed but didn’t ask him why he was doing this. Nor did she question why he spent such a long while looking in her mouth with a flashlight, inspecting not only her tongue and palate but her gums and the glistening tissue behind her lips as well. He also spent a long time examining her nails, on both her hands and her feet. “Sometimes you can find clues in the skin or the lining of the mouth that point you to a diagnosis,” Falchuk explained at last.

He also seemed to fix on the little loose stool that remained in her rectum. She told him she had had an early breakfast, and diarrhea before the car ride to Boston.

When the physical exam was over, he asked her to dress and return to his office. She felt tired. The energy she had mustered for the trip was waning. She steeled herself for yet another somber lecture on how she had to eat more, given her deteriorating condition.

“I’m not at all sure this is irritable bowel syndrome,” Dr. Falchuk said, “or that your weight loss is only due to bulimia and anorexia nervosa.”

She wasn’t sure she had heard him correctly. Falchuk seemed to recognize her confusion. “There may be something else going on that explains why you can’t restore your weight. I could be wrong, of course, but we need to be sure, given how frail you are and how much you are suffering.”

Anne felt even more confused and fought off the urge to cry. Now was not the time to break down. She needed to concentrate on what the doctor was saying. He proposed more blood tests, which were simple enough, but then suggested a procedure called an endoscopy. She listened carefully as Falchuk described how he would pass a fiberoptic instrument, essentially a flexible telescope, down her esophagus and then into her stomach and small intestine. If he saw something abnormal, he would take a biopsy. She was exhausted from endless evaluations. She’d been through so much, so many tests, so many procedures: the x-rays, the bone density assessment, the painful bone marrow biopsy for her low blood counts, and multiple spinal taps when she had meningitis. Despite his assurances that she would be sedated, she doubted whether the endoscopy was worth the trouble and discomfort. She recalled her internist’s reluctance to refer her to a gastroenterologist, and wondered whether the procedure was pointless, done for the sake of doing it, or, even worse, to make money.

Copyright © 2007 by Jerome Groopman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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