Becoming a physician—especially learning to diagnose and treat illness—requires us to depersonalize disease. The diseases that change patients’ lives become nothing more than anonymous pictures in journals or books. Patients’ heartbeats become lines on an electrocardiogram; cancers become purple and pink speckles devoid of personality. These static representations of illness create a barrier between the emotions of the patient and the empathy of the physician.
When looking at a slide of lymphoma during my time in medical school, I thought back to my childhood when my brother was being treated for leukemia. I wondered if the histologist looking at his blood thought of the person behind the slide or of the family anxiously awaiting the results of that very slide. This short daydream became an epiphany of sorts. A simple picture of disease affects the lives of no less than two people: the patient and the physician.
Pictures are essential to appreciating the visual manifestations of disease, but they are also part of a patient. They are no less deserving of respect than a patient seated on the examination table. Though a picture or specimen removed from the human context loses the ability to communicate the patient’s emotions, we as physicians and physicians-to-be must not lose sight of this original context. Even if human emotions do not cross the barrier created by images, speculation and empathy by the viewer can help break down this barrier. Thus, the empathy demonstrated by a physician while delivering bad news should be no different from the empathy felt by the viewer of a photograph showing a terminal disease.
This image represents the human aspect of medical imagery. The disease itself is not the focus of this work, but merely a background to the eye representing both the patient looking outand the physician looking in. The static image of the disease is thus no longer a barrier to patient–physician interaction but, rather, an interface from human to human.