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In Awe of Being Human, A Doctor’s Stories From the Edge of Life and Death

Betsy MacGregor

Greenbank, WA, Abiding Nowhere Press, 2013, 298 pp, $14.40, paperback, Kindle $9

In Awe of Being Human, A Doctor’s Stories from the Edge of Life and Death, is a deeply moving account from a physician who has cared for patients from the beginning to the end of life. Betsy MacGregor, MD, a pediatrician who worked in New York City for nearly 30 years, recounts stories from her practice around themes that comprise the heart of healing. Dr MacGregor provided care for neonates, children, adolescents, and families. Later in her career, she conducted research with people at the end of life to study “the arc of the human journey from the beginning to the very end.” Therefore, her work resonated with my experience as a family physician over a similar period of time.

Dr MacGregor describes her patients, mostly from the inner city of New York, as “people that I loved and learned from.” Her love and deep respect for her patients shines through riveting stories that span her career from a tentative medical student, an exhausted resident, a seasoned attending physician, as a patient herself, and as a wise sage. These stories, “the fierce and tender ones that carved out a niche in the marrow of my bones,” provide intimate views into the worlds of hospitals and doctoring as well as into her own character and development as a physician.

In the introductory chapter on “Beauty and Brutality,” Dr MacGregor describes the paradoxical juxtaposition of beautiful patients plunged into the depths of tragedy. She describes her first experience of removing a bullet from a young man’s thigh with such vivid detail that the reader can almost smell the blood and see the sweat on her brow. While suturing the wound she wonders why gruesome things happen to decent people and observes that life is not always fair or reasonable.

In the chapter on “Tenderness and Technology,” Dr MacGregor discusses the thin lines between helping and hurting and how these lines are often crossed inadvertently. How do doctors know when to continue and when to stop, especially when patients and their families are clutching to every last straw of hope that a loved one may improve and survive? These challenges are especially apparent in the neonatal ICU where premature infants are treated intensively but often die in spite of everything. Such experiences left Dr MacGregor wondering “what we had gained for them besides a prolongation of struggle and pain.”

Dr MacGregor describes unprecedented developments in medical science and technology over the course of her career such as in diagnosis, treatment, management of premature neonates, and in preventing pain. Yet she cautions that when the deceptive lure of technology is coupled with arrogance, tenderness can get pushed out of the picture. Her tender feelings toward her patients did not seem to wane as she recounted her amazement with the process of birth. She crafted and whispered a personal welcome to each newborn that she examined, “Hello, welcome to this life! May you have a good life, a wonderful life.”

This book is a rich resource for health professionals as well as for lay readers. It is an inspiring introduction for students and residents into the world of healing and the challenging and heroic lives of patients. It is a compelling reminder to seasoned clinicians that life is a miracle, and healing is a privilege. The book provides a glimpse into the soul of an extraordinary physician. It will provide any reader with a better understanding of the joys and pathos of doctoring.

In Awe of Being Human rekindled my appreciation for my work as a family physician. Dr MacGregor’s stories triggered memories of almost fainting in the operating room as a student, the wonder of attending deliveries, exalted moments when patients recovered, and moments of deep sadness with patients and their families. Dr MacGregor reminds us, “Medical care is not just about diagnosing and treating disease but includes paying attention to the people who have the disease and accompanying them in their search for healing.” Her inspiring stories remind us that doctoring with compassion and reflection is endlessly fascinating and brings immense rewards.

Cynthia Haq, MD
Department of Family Medicine
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Copyright 2017 by Society of Teachers of Family Medicine