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Medical Humanities, Ethics, and Disability: One Fellow’s Confession and Transformation


In Confessions of a Knife, Richard Selzer gives a candid account of his life as a surgeon, divulging mistakes, regrets, impressions, and emotions in beautiful, metaphorical prose.

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1. Selzer R.Confessions of a Knife. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press; 2001.

2. Certain elements of the patient’s story have been changed to protect the patient’s privacy. None of these changes are inconsistent with the patient’s actual narrative experience.

3. Paulson R.Not in Kansas Anymore: A Memoir of the Farm, New York City, and Life with ALS. Winnipeg: Gemma B Publishing; 2009, 207–208, 235.

4. Garland-Thompson R. Seminar. Disability as Human Variation, Cultural Construction, and Bioethical Issue. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Intensive Bioethics Course. Washington, DC, June 4, 2009.

5. Bauby J.The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. New York: Vintage Books; 1998.

6. Tervo RC, Azuma S, Palmer G, Redinius P.Medical students’ attitudes toward persons with disability: A comparative study. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2002;83(11):1537–42.

7. Byron M, Cockshott Z, Brownett H, Ramkalawan T.What does “disability” mean for medical students? An exploration of the words medical students associate with the term “disability.” Medical Education 2005;39(2):176–83.

8. O’Fallon E, Hillson S.Brief report: Physician discomfort and variability with disability assessments. Journal of General Internal Medicine 2005;20(9):852–4.

9. Toombs SK.The Meaning of Illness: A Phenomenological Account of the Different Perspectives of Physician and Patient. Boston: Springer; 1992.

10. See note 9, Toombs 1992:11, 17.

11. Shakespeare T, Iezzoni LI, Groce NE.Disability and the training of health professionals. Lancet 2009;374(9704):1815–6, at 1815.

12. Sacks O.The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales. New York: Touchstone; 1985:6.

13. See note 9, Toombs 1992:63.

14. See note 11, Shakespeare et al. 2009:1816.

15. Duggan A, Bradshaw YS, Carroll SE, Rattigan SH, Altman W.What can I learn from this interaction? A qualitative analysis of medical student self-reflection and learning in a standardized patient exercise about disability. Journal of Health Communication 2009;14(8):797–811.

16. Moroz A, Gonzalez-Ramos G, Festinger T, Langer K, Zefferino S, Kalet A.Immediate and follow-up effects of a brief disability curriculum on disability knowledge and attitudes of PM&R residents: A comparison group trial. Medical Teacher 2010;32(8):e360–4.

17. See note 7, Byron et al. 2005.

18. Fins JJ.The humanities and the future of bioethics education. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2010;19(4):518–21.

19. See note 11, Shakespeare et al. 2009:1816.

I would like to thank Joseph J. Fins, M.D., for his guidance in writing this manuscript and for his continued dedication to mentoring countless others in medical ethics and the medical humanities, and the many patients who provided me the opportunity to learn from their experiences. Funding was provided by the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College and the Hospital for Special Surgery Fellowship in Biomedical Ethics.

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Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
  • ISSN: 0963-1801
  • EISSN: 1469-2147
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-quarterly-of-healthcare-ethics
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