A Doctor’s Body Language

Everett Collection
Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975

It was the first day of medical school, and I was about to dissect the corpse of a middle-aged woman. Like all the cadavers in the anatomy lab, her head, hands, and feet were covered by gauze. The instructor pointed to an exposed arm and showed me how to cut with care, revealing the subcutaneous fat and underlying muscle. I took the scalpel and continued the dissection, exhilarated by the prospect of learning the body’s structure so I could understand its functions.

Over the following weeks, the excitement of dissection evaporated as each day I was expected to memorize the names and locations of scores of nerves, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. This knowledge was tested in so-called “practicals,” where the instructor stood next to the cadaver and pointed to a body part, awaiting the answer. The relentless rote memorization made anatomy a dry, lifeless subject.

Gavin Francis’s engaging and edifying book Adventures in Human Being breathes life into the study of anatomy by situating it in the larger landscape of human experience, connecting the body to art, literature, music, astronomy, and history. Unlike most physicians whose career encompasses a single discipline, Francis has worked in pediatrics, obstetrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, and neurosurgery. An avid traveler, he served as an expedition medic in the Arctic and Antarctic, and as a physician in communities in both Africa and India.

Today Francis is a family doctor in a small inner-city clinic in Edinburgh. Over the years, he has been called to emergency situations that “are extreme and offer a heightened awareness of human lives at their most vulnerable.” While such moments are fraught and heroic, Francis notes that “some of the deepest and most rewarding insights medicine has given me have been from quieter, everyday encounters.” This breadth of clinical experience makes him a uniquely adept interpreter of the body in health and disease.

The narratives of Adventures in Being Human follow a sequence that I, along with many physicians, use to examine patients, beginning at the head and ending at the foot. In his chapter on the brain, Francis addresses electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). He explains that the treatment triggers “epileptic seizures by applying electricity to an unconscious patient’s temples—a dramatic and, to some, a frightening idea for a medical therapy.” This leads him to consider how through history different cultures searched for meaning in the grand mal seizures of epilepsy. The Greeks believed epilepsy to be a “Sacred Disease,” signifying direct communication between the material world and the spiritual realm:

Fits appear to overwhelm the flesh, as if the spirit has been possessed, or has temporarily left the body. Following a seizure many people experience a period of quiet sedation, as the brain recovers to its pre-seizure state. That seizures were once considered “sacred” is understandable—the first time…

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