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Lingual Verve to host The House of God talk

The Lingual Verve humanities program will host a discussion of The House of God on Wednesday, Oct. 29, examining the fictional, but sometimes too real, account of a medical internship in the 1970s.

Pamela Schaff, assistant dean for curriculum and student affairs and director of the program in medical humanities, arts, and ethics, said that the book remains relevant 30 years after its first printing and will be the subject of a pre-conference presentation at the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities conference held Oct. 23-26.

Schaff will attend that presentation and discuss it at the Oct. 29 Lingual Verve meeting at 7 p.m. in the Hoyt Gallery, KAM basement lobby. The event is free and open to all.

The House of God was written by physician Stephen Bergman under the pen name Samuel Shem. Bergman recently published a new novel, The Spirit of the Place, and spoke with Julia Cormano, a fourth-year student at the Keck School of Medicine, about it and other topics of interest to the campus community. Her Q&A follows:

What autobiographical elements exist in The Spirit of the Place?

This is an imagined autobiography for me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go back and get continuity as the doctor in the small town you grew up in? As in the book, I was led into medicine because I was kind of a problem child, and my parents sent me to a “roly-poly old doc.”

When I arrived, he was standing under the “yes” smoking sign and smelled of scallions. Just like [the fictional The Spirit of the Place mentor] Dr. Bill Starbuck, rather than give me advice, this man took me on house calls and through experience got me interested in medicine. I always wanted to write about him.

How does the message of The Spirit of the Place differ from that in The House of God?

In medicine we talk about “do no harm” as the central tenet applying to doctors. In this book, the main character, Dr. Orville Rose, comes to the realization, “don’t spread more suffering around.”

Unlike “do no harm,” this message speaks to everyone, and helps Dr. Rose to make life decisions and connect with his own humanity.

What would Dr. Rose think about universal health care?

Dr. Starbuck clearly wants no part of insurance, as he treats a lot of people for free and avoids all billing headaches. Dr. Rose is more fiscally realistic, but would be much in favor of a single payer system to get the middleman out of it.

You’ve given a commencement speech at the School of Medicine here at USC in the past. Since then, has your message to students and residents at Los Angeles County Hospital changed, and if so, how?

My message is the same. In medical school and internship you spend time learning how to be competent as a physician. You have to do this of course, but it’s not enough. The harder thing is learning how to be with people. This is especially challenging in hospitals with patients with class, ethnic, cultural and language barriers.

As a physician, the quality of your treatment will depend on your ability to relate and connect to patients as fellow human beings.

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