Only When We Learn How To Die Then We Learn How To Live


The headline of this post comes from a book called Tuesday with Morrie. Maybe some of you read it. The quote has been used by a Singapore-based physician named Dr. Richard Teo, who not only millions as a physician but also mingled with the rich and famous. Contrary to that lifestyle he had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and has passed away a couple of months ago.

There is a really touching video of him talking to a class of medical students. The quality is rough, but you should go ahead and see it all the way to the end. You can read a transcript here.

At one point in the video he says something very substantial:

Was the pain, was the suffering the patients went through real? No. Of course I know all the medical terms to describe how they feel, all the suffering they went through. But in truth, I did not know how they feel, not until I became a patient. It is until now; I truly understand how they feel. And, if you ask me, would I have been a very different doctor if I were to re-live my life now, I can tell you yes I will. Because I truly understand how the patients feel now. And sometimes, you have to learn it the hard way.

In 1974 Thomas Nagel, a philosopher based in New York, published an influential paper entitled “What it’s like to be a bat?“. In this work he argues that “materialist theories of mind omit the essential component of consciousness, namely that there is something that it feels like to be a particular conscious thing. You will never be able to understand how that bat feels with a technoractic/materalistic approach.

If you map that theory to the physician, then you must accept the fact that you will never really be able to understand how the patient feels. You may spend hours talking to a patient, you may symphasize with her, you understand the entire biological processes behind a certain disease – but you will never be able to “know how the patient feels”.

A lot of physicians become numb to their patients over time. With all the bureaucracy and that money-thing always present it is also understandable, but nevertheless one should once in a while re-think the way you act, interact and  are in the daily clinical setting.


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