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Book Review: In Awe of Being Human—A Doctor’s Stories from the Edge of Life and Death by Betsy MacGregor, MD

BY VICTOR S. SIERPINA, MD, ABFP, ABIHM, Distinguished Teaching Professor, Family and Integrative Medicine, UTMB Health

When my friend and editor of Explore, Ben Kligler asked me to review this book, I could never have guessed what a joy it would be to do so. Dr. Betsy MacGregor, the author, is a gifted writer with an penchant for bringing real life stories to vivid clarity with meaning and vital lessons. The heart and soul of this book are compact yet detailed, poignant and powerful narratives from her practice. They span her career as a pediatrician, adolescent medicine specialist, and palliative care doctor from medical school, residency, and professional practice and keep the reader turning pages expectedly as the tales unfold. Usually only a few pages each, the experiences she shares are tragic, thought-provoking, tear-evoking. At the same time they give the reader a deep appreciation and awe for the resilience, courage, compassion, and sacredness of life in patients, their families, and the doctors and other health professionals who care for them.

To show you how impressed I was by this incredible work, after just reading the first couple of chapters, I asked Betsy to send us a couple of cases to distribute to our medical students at the University of Texas Medical Branch just starting a new 4-year track entitled the Physician Healer. This track is an educational foray into improving mindfulness, self-awareness, empathy, compassion, communication skills, and enhancing professional identity in a dedicated cohort of students. It explores issues Dr. MacGregor describes in her book by talking about the stress of practice and medical education, the struggles we face with unanswerable questions, preventing burnout, and how we try to cope with untold suffering. In Awe of Being Human will make a perfect companion to our students as they begin their medical journeys and Betsy generously contributed the books at the author’s rate, meaning she didn’t make a dime of royalties.

Somehow, that gesture did not surprise me. Throughout the book she struck me as a deeply committed, loving, compassionate human being, dedicated to healing, alleviating pain and suffering, and honestly wrestling with life’s great enigmas as spotlighted in the practice of medicine.

To give you some flavor of the broad range of dynamic tensions she addresses in this masterful work, I will list the thoughtful and creative chapter titles. It will be up to you to imagine how she might have developed those chapters, until you read them yourselves, as you must.

Chapter headings in order are: Beauty & Brutality, Mystery & Miracles, Tenderness & Technology, Contradictions & Incongruity, Loving & Being Loved, Caring & Connection, Suffering & Compassion, Giving & Receiving, Turning Wounds into Wisdom.

Each chapter is a series of stories from her practice illustrating beautifully and magnificently the juxtaposition of these characteristics of life, of patients, of doctors, and of the experience of being human. The heartfelt and enthusiastic endorsements are from an array of incredible healers such as Rachel Remen, Larry Dossey, James Gordon, Andrew Weil, Roshi Joan Halifax, Michael Lerner, and more.

I can think of no better advice to offer anyone in the healing arts than to read this treasure chest of a book. It will refresh your practice and view of humankind. It will validate and bring to light experiences and emotions perhaps long ignored, unanswered, or suppressed. It will bring you back to a place of awe and a new respect for what we do as healers and the incredible wonderfulness of those we care for.

As Lao Tsu once said, “Without a sense of awe, life is without meaning.” This book is a path back to rediscover awe, wisdom, and the affirmation of life within yourself and others. Read it. ▼