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The Doctor As Patient
A psychiatrist talks about what many physicians do when they feel helpless, how poetry can help with an illness, and how to achieve a bit of immortality. By Leslie Milk
Ken Gorelick has found that two of the most important words a doctor treating a seriously ill patient can say are “I’m sorry.” Photograph courtesy of Ken Gorelick.
Comments () | Published May 1, 2009

Ken Gorelick is a psychiatrist who believes in the therapeutic power of literature. He sometimes asks patients to read poetry and to write their own. In doing so, he says, people “find the truth of their own experience reflected back in a way they can recognize.”

Gorelick has also used literature in his teaching at George Washington University medical school. He asked students on psychiatric rotation to read a Raymond Carver story, “A Small, Good Thing,” because it deals with feelings of helplessness, an emotion that both doctors and patients experience—and that doctors often handle badly.

Gorelick knows how it feels on both sides of the examination table. Two years ago, at age 65, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that turned out to be malignant. As his symptoms increased, the balance of his life changed: He became a patient more than a doctor. But he also realized that the experience offered a chance to teach new lessons to medical students—how to humanely acknowledge the impact of a bad diagnosis and how to connect with patients they couldn’t cure.

Gorelick grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. He graduated from Rutgers, then Harvard Medical School, where he also did his psychiatric residency. He joined the US Public Health Service in 1971 and was assigned to train psychiatric residents at St. Elizabeths Hospital in DC.

At the time, 4,000 patients were living at St. E’s, and there was an effort, Gorelick says, to create as normal and enriching an environment as possible. One of his mentors there knew he loved literature and introduced him to the idea of poetry as therapy.

After surgery to remove part of his brain tumor in 2007, Gorelick wrote in a poem:

Looking back I feel my life has been right.

No second-guessing that this or that might

have been better,

No ache that I might have climbed higher


I am in a generous leisurely mood with


Filled with gratitude and awe for what

has been,

The gifts, the luck, the love.

Gorelick and I met twice at his house near DC’s Dupont Circle, where he lives with his wife, Cheryl Opacinch, a retired Department of Defense international-policy expert.

The first time, he greeted me warmly but had a hard time expressing himself. He realized something was wrong but hoped his mind would clear if we kept talking. When it didn’t, I asked his wife to join us. She recognized that he was having a seizure; it had happened before and is a symptom of brain tumors. There were no physical signs—no tremors or loss of consciousness—but he needed medical attention.

He went to George Washington University Medical Center and was treated with steroids to ease swelling in his brain. A week later, he was back home and called to resume the interview.

Why did you study medicine?

I came from Jewish-immigrant roots. My father worked in a shoe factory, but it was his dream for me to study medicine. When I was four years old, he had a heart attack and the doctor came to the house every day. I was very impressed by what he did for my father.

Why psychiatry?

I was fascinated by the idea that Freud had developed a way to understand the invisible parts of life. What an amazing miracle—to understand life stories.


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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 05/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles