“Do you remember our handshake? The Nussbaum handshake? First you slap, then you shake, then you slide! It’s the Nussbaum sandshake, the Nussnutt landrake, the Fussbutt bandlake, the Cussbutt taketake!”
Martha, a retired nurse battling depression, found herself once again on the psych unit under the care of Abraham Nussbaum, a psychiatrist at Denver Health and author of a new memoir, The Finest Traditions of My Calling: One Physician’s Search for the Renewal of Medicine. After years of hospitalizations, Martha formalized her affection for Nussbaum with “the dreamshake.” Slide and shake, pinky swear, fist bump, explosion.
But why the dreamshake? What did Martha dream about her doctor? Was he a scientist, friend, lover, pill-provider, teacher, technician—or savior?
In a mammoth industry—in 2014, $3 trillion, or $9,523 per American, was spent on health care—competing visions for reform abound. Nussbaum, a 41-year-old Catholic physician, ushers readers through a wild, weird, head scratching, infuriating, and tender odyssey into the dizzying diversity of modern medicine.
Part journalist, part comic, part philosopher, and part shrink, Nussbaum’s search for the healing of healthcare culminates not with the wonders of technology or a recipe for cost-saving, but instead with a fourth-century bishop’s call to build a “poor house” for the ill.
Comedy and Tragedy
On the second day of med school, a young female pathology resident grabbed lunch from the cafeteria and accompanied Nussbaum to his first autopsy. She casually chatted while cutting open an elderly man’s chest—opening the rib cage, removing the organs, and plopping intestines into the sink before she “ran the bowel,” spilling out feces.
As guts spilled out of the cadaver, Nussbaum asked if she ever considered vegetarianism. “No,” she said. “Why would you ask?”
For Nussbaum, residency began by learning how to handle dead body parts; it eventually grew to learning how to handle co-workers.
As a third-year resident, Nussbaum (the rookie) shadowed Cannon, an intern with small glasses, curly hair and pearly teeth. Around three in the morning, a nurse paged them about a patient with a case of the hiccups.
“Okay, Rook, look up treatments for intractable hiccups,” Cannon said.
“Chlorpromazine. Haloperidol. Methylphenidate. Baclofen. Midazolam. Rectal massage.”
“What was that last one?”
“Uh-huh. That’s the one. Rook, let me teach you. You’ve got to show the nurse who’s in charge.”
The furious nurses massaged the patient’s rectum every 15 minutes the entire night—and made sure to page Cannon mercilessly for the next half decade while on call.
It’s hard to say whether the physicians, the patients, or the consultants in The Finest Traditions of My Callingare more entertaining.
Paul Bregman, one of Colorado’s many marijuana doctors, arrives to lunch wearing Air Jordans, tweed pants, and a black T-shirt, and tries to offer Nussbaum a bag of cannabis-infused Ho-Hos (“I want you to see the amazing”). Connie, a patient who is sure her sister is plotting to harm Peyton Manning, won’t relent until the star quarterback visits her in treatment. A team of health care consultants prints T-shirts with the new hospital motto. They get tossed from floor to floor by underwhelmed doctors and nurses, and eventually worn by wild-eyed patients on the third-floor psych unit who could uniquely identify with the new slogan: “I’M COMMITTED.”