'The Movie That Has Most Influenced My Work as a Physician'

January 2, 2012

How the lessons learned from the movie 'The Doctor,' became personal, according to family physician Hanni G. Youssef.

As a physician, I found great inspiration in the 1991 movie "The Doctor," starring William Hurt. It is a movie of triumph and defeat, echoing some of my own life experiences; it struck an emotional cord that allows me to practice medicine as I do today. In the movie, Hurt portrays a confident and arrogant physician - the archetype of the public view of modern-day physicians. When he is diagnosed with throat cancer, Hurt transforms from a powerful doctor who is respected, to a patient whose words are barely heard. 

His portrayal made me look deep inside myself; asking why I chose to become a physician. I wanted to become a doctor so that I could cure ailments, diagnose disease, and alleviate pain. Physicians are problem solvers; they actively seek out disease and use their best skills to defeat it. It can be a powerful position to be in. But it wasn't until I saw this movie that I realized what it could be like to become vulnerable to life's capriciousness. I vowed to take life in stride, while enjoying every moment - treating my patients with dignity, and being content to be of service to others.

Vulnerability is defined as being extremely susceptible, physically or psychologically weak, and without adequate protection. This emotion is deeply apparent when Hurt surrenders his pompous attitude - experiencing a shift from a position of power to becoming helpless and dependant on others. It can be a sobering experience; especially for physicians. We are primed, trained, and prepared to carry out our daily activities with a certain conviction and buoyancy. Remove that conviction, and we instantly lose the confidence that is so intrinsic to practicing medicine.

Not only did this movie inspire my own practice of medicine, but it proved prophetic in my life as well. I was at home in New York when my 47-year-old brother called me from Florida, asking for advice; he described to me his chest pain, along with associated symptoms of diaphoresis, weakness, and gastrointestinal upset. Instantly, my response as a physician was to review his history, gather physical clues, and arrive at a diagnosis of possible angina. I instructed him to get to the nearest emergency department as quickly as possible. Hearing the urgency in my voice, he did just that - sought immediate medical attention. Of course I was confident in my assessment because I am a physician, who, by virtue of my training is able to diagnose medical problems and demand that my orders be followed. My profession demands that I know what I am doing, and do it with self-assurance and assertiveness.

My brother was ultimately transported to the local emergency room where he was diagnosed as having an inferior-wall myocardial infarction; he was transferred to a cardiac center where he ultimately underwent a quadruple bypass. While he was having a coronary artery bypass graft in a busy teaching medical center, I was traveling to Florida to see him. I left New York, my comfort zone as a physician, and arrived in Florida as a family member of a patient.

Similar to Hurt's portrayal of an ailing physician, my life was transformed, humbled. I sat in the hospital waiting for my brother to come out of surgery, so that I could be assured that he was OK. I was the "New York doctor" waiting to speak with the doctors, surgeons, anesthesiologists, cardiologists, and nurses who would update me on my brother's procedure, findings, and treatment plan. It was a true eye-opener when I was only allowed to hear about his progress through his wife. When he was finally discharged from the post-anesthesia unit to the critical cardiac unit, I was given time limits for my visitation with him. I was even told where I could stand, so that I was out of the way of the nursing staff. I couldn't tell them that I wanted his oxygen level set at a certain amount in order to keep his O2 saturation up, given his history of smoking. My need to give directions and potential orders went unheeded, as did I, in this foreign environment. For a time, I was just a family member, not the doctor I knew myself to be in my own hospital. The experience proved to transform my practice as a physician.

Watching the movie "The Doctor," and later, waiting helplessly as my brother was treated for a life-threatening disease, I realized that we are all vulnerable as human beings. We are not indestructible. Even though we are physicians, we are also family members who happen to be physicians. As I sat near my brother's bed watching his O2 saturation deteriorate and his unit of blood become clotted during transfusion, I was inspired. I grabbed the call button and pressed it for the nurse's attention, and left her to manage his problems. She was in her environment, whereas, I was clearly out of mine. I was a family member/physician who was visiting his brother, the patient.

Hanni George Youssef, MD, is a family physician practicing at Crestwood, NY- based D*O*C*S Medical Group. He graduated from Cairo University Medical School in 1983, and completed a residency at North Shore University Hospital. At home, he and wife Renee enjoy managing USTA tennis tournaments, Tae Kwon Do, and music lesions for their 15-year-old son, Steven, and 13-year-old daughter, Hannah.