By Anoop Kumar, MD.
Anoop Kumar is an emergency physician who is in love with life, people, and healing. He has written a book called MICHELANGELO’S MEDICINE because he would like us all to be involved with what he saw in the famous statue of David in Florence. There was a sense of presence and personality carved into the marble:
“David is a sculpture of not just a physical body but a complete human being.”
As a child he spent two years at his grandmother’s home in South India experiencing a kind of paradise filled with beauty, joy, and love:
“Our house gave us shelter, but it was less a man-made structure than an extension of the nature around us. Rain or shine, the doors were always open. During the monsoon season, the smell of rain and earth would permeate the rooms of the house. The rhythm of the rains would vary with each downpour, sometimes the thick, heavy strike of the bass drum and at other times the shrill rapid crescendo of the cymbal. Nature is music and music is nature, if only we listen. I learned then that the boundary between me and the world around me was not so rigid. I felt that I didn’t end at my skin, nor did I begin as a cell.”
Kumar goes on to describe his sense of wonder while learning about the human body in medical school:
“I remember marveling at the intricate anatomy of the forearm and hand in cadaver lab. What struck me in particular about the human hand is its impeccable alignment of anatomy and physiology. The ropes and pulleys in the hand are perfectly formed for muscle contraction. The image that comes to mind is that of a Swiss watchmaker meticulously adjusting the components – a degree or two here, a millimeter there – so that the fingers move beautifully, even artfully. The form and function of each structure are intertwined, woven into each other. It is only conceptually that we can separate the two.”
After he became a physician, Kumar brought these two kinds of awareness together – the joy of life that he learned as a child and the beauty of the body that he discovered in medical school. Then he experienced how the lack of knowledge about the full nature of being human found in the medical treatment system produces serious problems:
“The picture of health and health care that medical science paints is remarkably incomplete. That picture influences not only those within the health care system, but everyone in our society. It is the knowledge we all subscribe to. That knowledge is incompletely describing a living, thinking, feeling, evolving human being – a true masterpiece – as a rigid, physical structure. As a result too many people – patients, clinicians, and many others are suffering unnecessarily.”
He has written a book that describes the problems – from the rigidities of diagnostic and treatment procedures to the limitations of existing medical education and institutions. Physicians are not dealing with themselves or their patients as complete human beings and patients are accustomed to being treated as bodies separated from their individual presence and personality.
Kumar describes, for example, the drawbacks of using “algorithms” for both diagnosis and treatment. This involves applying strict guidelines that may work well for the efficiency of the medical system but can be inadequate in meeting what the real person needs. As soon as you are seen as presenting with “chest pain,” for example, your care follows an ever-narrowing path towards treatment, a path that may omit some crucial, individual information that does not fit pre-determined categories.
Kumar listens to patients as he once listened to the rain. Here’s one of the stories that he tells about learning to hear what people are saying that lies beyond the usual medical conversation:
“One evening I walked into a room in the Emergency Department and greeted Mr. Wilkes, a smiling gentleman in his eighties. He was lying back on the stretcher and had a brown fedora on his head, the front tipped forward, covering his eyes. Below the brim of his hat, wrinkles extended down like dry streams on a riverbed. He wore a faded azure shirt tucked into brown pants, which were held up by suspenders.
He had come to the ED to ’get his legs checked out,‘ and had done me the courtesy of rolling up his pant legs to the knees. On the floor next to the stretcher was a pair of worn-out loafers, stuffed with his socks. He seemed like someone who was making a brief pit stop, as though he had somewhere else to be very soon.
It was quickly apparent why Mr. Wilkes had come in. Both of his legs were swollen, the skin tight and reddish. Yet the smiling gentleman seemed generally unconcerned by this while I went about taking his history and doing a physical exam. He happily answered any questions I had and kept repeating, ‘I just want to know what’s going on, that’s all.’ Then he’d smile.”
Kumar examined Mr. Wilkes and found that he had blood clots that could break free at any time and make their way to his lungs, risking a fatal embolism. He explained this to Mr. Wilkes and told him about blood thinners.
“Mr. Wilkes was still smiling when he said, “Thanks Doc, But I’m ready to go.” When he was told that he might die, his response was, “I know, Doc. We all gotta go sometime.” I became convinced that Mr. Wilkes was not going to change his mind and although I did not agree with his choice, I discharged him from the ED against medical advice.
I sometimes think back and wonder how Mr. Wilkes saw himself. Maybe he knew there was more to him than his Physical Body. Perhaps he saw himself as something more – as mind or spirit. Or perhaps he didn’t think about any of that. Maybe he was simply a person who lived life as it came, and went. If I could talk to Mr. Wilkes now, I would. I wonder what he’d say if I suggested that our medical treatment system needed to start seeing its patients in a new light. I wonder what he’d say if I suggested that his body was not merely a physical structure but an energetic structure.”
Anoop Kumar presents his compelling vision along with practical applications – and he tells stories that bring being human to life. His book is filled with observations, ideas, and suggestions about how to go beyond dealing with the problems of the human body to enhancing human “well being”. This change begins with redefining the nature of the human body to include more than its physical structures. We have mental and energetic bodies as well as the physical one and they are all interconnected. Although the physical body often needs the extraordinary accomplishments of modern medicine, when we go beyond our current understanding to include all of what we are, we can have full well being.
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Anoop Kumar is a board-certified emergency physician practicing in the Washington, D.C. area.
You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His book, MICHELANGELO’S MEDICINE: How Redefining the Human Body Will Transform Health and Healthcare, was published in 2017.