The Calling, by Blair Grubb

The Calling

Blair Grubb is a veteran cardiologist at the University of Toledo Medical Center. The Calling is 31 short, 2-4 page, capsule summaries of various experiences he’s had that have inspired, changed, taught, or heartened him. Maybe 80% of them are about his most memorable patients, with two or three being about his family members (his father and his wife), and two or three being about his own medical crises when he became a patient himself. The anecdotes come from all different periods of his career, with an especially high number coming from the early years when he was still a medical student or resident.

It’s an easy read. Grubb doesn’t have the style of a professional writer, which means perhaps you lose a little flair and memorable wording, but it also keeps things simple and straightforward. Not to mention the technical, medical stuff is kept to a minimum, so there’s nothing here that a layman without a medical background should have any trouble following. Plus it’s very short; it took me between one and two hours to read the entire book.

The subject matter is of interest to me in that I have worked with physicians for several years now, interviewing them for biographical pieces and for other articles for a newsletter. So I have had occasion to discuss with them their careers and some of the experiences that have most impressed and shaped them. I find that aspect of what I do consistently worthwhile, and I’ve often thought about how I’d like to talk at greater length with some of them and dig deeper into these areas.

Grubb is a kind and thoughtful man, interested in some of these same human aspects of the practice of medicine that intrigue me, so one would think this book would fit me very well. And in fact it did appeal to me significantly, but I’m going to say maybe not quite as much as I would have guessed. Perhaps it’s the very brevity of the accounts, perhaps it’s something about his writing style, but I felt emotionally touched a little less frequently and to a little lesser degree than I expected going in.

That’s not at all to say the book didn’t have significant meaning for me; I’m just talking about a matter of degree here.

But on the brevity point, for instance, he tells the story of his own brush with cancer in just two and a half pages. Certainly what he says is of value, but it’s not like one can really explore something like what it is to experience cancer, in all its ups and downs, in all its complexity and nuance, in that amount of space.

All the chapters are like that. You maybe smile, you maybe nod in recognition of an important life lesson, you maybe think “That’s pretty cool,” but these are flashes. You don’t really spend time with the patients and get to know them beyond some one thing they said or did that impressed him.

A 500 page version of this book would have been a more challenging read, and no doubt parts of it would not have held my interest ideally well and would have been a slog to get through, but I think the appealing aspects of the book would have increased as much or more than those unappealing aspects.

The most common lesson imparted by his encounters with these patients is that you can potentially learn and benefit from anyone, and that therefore you shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on first impressions that dealing with someone is going to be a negative experience that you get nothing out of. (What’s interesting is that his storytelling method kind of makes it sound like he himself is particularly slow to understand this. Chapter after chapter tells of how he assumed that such-and-such patient was going to be a pain to deal with—because they were old, they were senile, he was warned they were uncooperative, they were lower class, whatever—and yet he had some eye-opening experience with them that enriched his life. Always it’s a wonderful, pleasant surprise. You’d think after so many such experiences he wouldn’t be surprised anymore.)

I’ll also say that Grubb is a lot more credulous about supernatural stuff than I am. It’s not so much that he’s an out-and-out believer, but he takes more the common, supposedly “open-minded,” approach that there’s good evidence for supernaturalism even if not quite enough to compel belief in it from a purely rational standpoint, that “there just may be something to it,” that there’s certainly nothing to disapprove of about people who do believe in it, and that it’s dogmatic to be purely rational anyway.

So whether it be tarot cards, precognition, ESP, communication through dreams, near death spiritual experiences, or conventional religion, he notes the support for it in his anecdotes while stopping short of embracing it entirely. It’s not so much an “I can prove this” as an “Isn’t life richer when we admit the possibility of this, and support and respect those who believe it?” which I know is an attitude that well over 90% of readers will applaud, but that happens to be one that I don’t share.

I don’t think rationality is merely one among many equally sound ways of acquiring beliefs about the world. Rationality just means, by definition, that your beliefs match the evidence, that the likelihood you attribute to something matches the degree to which the available evidence renders it likely to be true.

Rationality is not some arbitrary limit you’re putting on your beliefs, like “I’m only going to believe the things my ancestors believed,” or “I’m only going to believe the things that can be expressed mathematically,” or “I’m only going to believe things I read in a textbook.” It simply means you’re going to believe what’s likely to be true to the degree that it’s likely to be true. There’s no alternative that’s being excluded that would cause you to miss out on truth. If there was something else (e.g., crystal ball gazing, taking your dreams literally, whatever) that was a reliable path to truth, then that wouldn’t be an alternative to rationality; it would be rational.

Rationality doesn’t close your mind in the slightest. Basing your beliefs on logic and evidence opens up a whole world of awesome things, beautiful things, complex things, things that common sense or majority opinion or first impressions would reject, etc. Just because it doesn’t (yet, though like everything this will change if and when the evidence changes) embrace tarot cards doesn’t mean it’s flawed or incomplete. To insist otherwise is like a 5 year old being upset that 2 + 2 doesn’t sometimes equal 5 when he would like it to or when it would somehow be convenient for him if it did so.

Anyway, again I know I’m in the minority—a small minority—here, especially among layman, where if nothing else the “polite” thing to do is to take seriously people’s beliefs in sky gods and auras and clairvoyance and such.

But it detracts from the book in the sense that he puts stuff like that on basically the same level as, say, the sometimes beneficial effects of things like music, positive thinking, healthy relationships, etc. on certain medical conditions. Like, “See how much more is out there in the world that can help our patients if we don’t limit ourselves to the cold, hard rationality of medical textbooks!”

Surely there’s a big difference, though, between recognizing that—as hard as it can be to quantify—a loving relationship that calms you and makes you happy can lead to better medical outcomes, and claiming that interpreting tarot cards can predict medical developments. These aren’t equivalent “unexplained” phenomena that you have to be open-minded and willing to “think outside the box” to accept. One is very well supported by the evidence with highly plausible causal, neurological, pathways to potentially explain it that in no way contradict settled science, and one is utterly silly supernatural claptrap that, based on the evidence, has an infinitesimal fraction of 1% chance of being true.

I liked The Calling, and I like Dr. Grubb. He’s one of those doctors you hope you end up with in a crisis, both for his medical expertise and his humane qualities. I’m glad he took the time to note some of the cases he experienced that had the most meaning for him. There is much in this book worth reflecting on and appreciating. I especially liked the stories about mean, nasty people who had a major medical scare and responded by completely changing their lives and becoming great altruists who delighted in living for others. Would that more of us realized we were on the wrong path prior to a deathbed—or near deathbed—conversion.

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