Attending Others

Attending Others

by Brian Volck

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Becoming a doctor requires years of formal education, but one learns the practice of medicine only through direct encounters with the fragile others called "patients." Pediatrician Brian Volck recounts his own education in the mysteries of suffering bodies, powerful words, and natural beauty. It's a curriculum where the best teachers are children and their mothers, the classrooms are Central American villages and desert landscapes, and the essential texts are stories, poems, and paintings. Through practices of focused attention, he grows from detached observer of his patients' lives into an uneasy witness and grateful companion. From the inner city to the Navajo Nation and from the Grand Canyon to the mountains of Honduras, Volck learns to listen to children unable to talk, to assist in healing when cure is impossible, and to love those whose life and experiences are radically different from his own.

This is not a how-to book or a brief for reforming medical education. Attending Others is a highly personal account of what the author learned about medicine after he completed his formal education. The short answer, it turns out, is pretty much everything.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620327289
Publisher: Wipf & Stock Publishers
Publication date: 07/20/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Brian Volck is a pediatrician and writer with an MD from Washington University in St. Louis and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University. His first collection of poetry, Flesh Becomes Word, was released in 2013. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in America, The Christian Century, DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and IMAGE.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Chapter 1 A Wedding 1

Chapter 2 Brian 12

Chapter 3 Alice 20

Chapter 4 Losing Control 38

Chapter 5 Reading the Body 55

Chapter 6 Paying Attention 64

Chapter 7 Affections 76

Chapter 8 Vulnerabilities 84

Chapter 9 Baltimore Interlude 93

Chapter 10 Khalil 109

Chapter 11 Embodying the Word 120

Chapter 12 Roberto and Jenrry 134

Chapter 13 Wendell and Me 158

Chapter 14 Silence J 170

Chapter 15 "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story" 188

Bibliography 205

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Brian Volck is a good listener. More to the point, and unlike most of his professional peers, he is a terrific writer. His stories of attending to others are artful but without artifice; the lessons he shares and the means by which he shares them reflect erudition and wry wit. But what comes through most in this deeply humane book is wonderment and gratitude for the privilege of serving the sick."

—Paul E. Farmer, MD, PhD, Kolokotrones University Professor, Harvard University, Co-founder of Partners in Health, Author of Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues, Biography, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

"Your medical education and practice have taught you the art of learning stories. By schooling better known to you than me, you have acquired the art of telling the stories you have learned. As a story-teller you are an excellent artist. I know this because you are able to reveal, in no more words than necessary, not only how you do your work, but more importantly, why."

—Wendell Berry, from a letter to the author 

"Brian Volck's stories are not just about medical life, though medicine is his profession, his vocation, and a frame and focus of the stories that make up this rich memoir. Attending Others refers to much more than medical care in these stories about learning to live among and love a Navajo community in New Mexico, rural folk in Honduras, and urbanites in Baltimore and Cincinnati. The attention Volck pays is deeply relational, informed by complex, resilient family life and a mindful, openhearted spirituality that draws him to the desert in whose silence he weaves words into life-giving stories about those who have been his teachers as he attended them. He invites his readers into a vision of healing and wholeness that begins and ends in resilient humor and deep humility."

—Marilyn McEntyre, Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities, UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program; Author of Patient Poets: Illness from Inside Out and Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

"We have lately seen a number of excellent writers who are doctors. Perhaps because a doctor must find words to give us when we are most broken and in need of encouragement, the best have learned the healing art of words. Dr. Brian Volck joins their company with this glorious memoir."

—Richard Rodriguez, Author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography

"Attending Others is a tour de force, a page-turner that poses complex and fascinating questions. It reads like an astonishing account from a strange country: the inner life of an attending physician as he chooses medicine, faces the first cadaver, and goes on to train and practice. With humility and humor, Volck commands both the idioms of medicine and the lyricism of poets. He confesses to flashes of fear but also to moving moments when the icy distance that lies between doctors and patients has melted. The practice of medicine often restores people to health, as Volck's memoir reveals, but medicine can also fail. Even then, as Volck points out, a doctor has something significant to offer: 'We gave them all we could,' he writes, 'our time, our presence, our attention.'"

—Jeanne Murray Walker, Author of The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer's


"Part memoir, part meditation, and all heartbreakingly and beautifully evocative, Attending Others is a very rare book indeed. This is a story about doctors and patients, and the mysterious and extraordinarily intimate realm they inhabit together; an elegant rumination upon one doctor's coming of age, as it were, bringing to mind the work of both Richard Selzer and William Carlos Williams, and Wendell Berry too."

—Bret Lott, Author of Jewel


"I have been reading Brian Volck's work for ten years. He is a rare talent, combining an extraordinary intellect, a deeply compassionate soul, and a well-honed sense of artistry. And, by the way, he is also a physician of the highest order. He brings all this to bear in Attending Others. If you attend to this profound memoir, I promise that you'll will come away richer, wiser, and more attuned to the secret passages of living and dying all around us." 

—Leslie Leyland Fields, Author of Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America

"I read this book compulsively over a day and a half with much pleasure and admiration. Volck introduces the reader to characters and stories with an assurance in style and storytelling that is the mark of a master. As a book it succeeds wonderfully. Perhaps the material was made to be a book, so much does it become greater than the sum of its parts. More than any achievements of craft or even its considerable art, though, I was moved, compelled, and instructed by the book's wisdom and sheer heart."

—Robert Clark, Author of Mr. White's Confession and River of the West: A Chronicle of the Columbia

"An intimate journey into the 'infinite queue of lives' that a doctor is entwined into over the course of a career. Brave, honest, and engaging.'"

—Danielle Ofri, Author of What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine; Editor-in-Chief, Bellevue Literary Review; Associate Professor of Medicine, New York University

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