A Physician Reclaims His Own Joy in Medicine
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Book Review: Nobody’s Boy: An Old Doctor and a New Science
by Mike Denney
By Shieva Khayam-Bashi
By the age of 70, most physicians, surgeons and psychologists would be well into their retirement. Not Mike Denney.
At the age of 71, Dr. Denney — a physician and surgeon — received his doctorate in depth psychology, with a passion for integrating the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of healing in his continuing work.
For many years since then, he has been inspiring others by teaching, writing and practicing mind-body-spirit counseling, and steadfastly advocating for the integration of spirit and science in medicine. Now, Dr. Denney has written a mesmerizing account of his personal and professional journey, a medical memoir: Nobody’s Boy — An Old Doctor and a New Science.
This enchanting memoir recounts the story of a young Mike Denney, who faced many challenges growing up in poverty on the near east side of Detroit in the 1930s. War, poverty, family strains and fear of death were among the many things with which he had to contend. Though he was clearly a thoughtful and intelligent boy, Denney’s stresses caused him to fail in grammar school and high school. At the tender age of 15, his future was doubtful. Then, one momentous night, the troubled boy stayed up to read what would become a life-altering book.
By the end of the night, he had a most extraordinary experience of inspiration, which gave him new clarity and purpose. That transformative moment brought him to a feeling of connection to the deeper self, the spirit, and to that same part of others, and it was what led Mike to decide to become a doctor.
It was this newfound connection to a deep sense of empathy, compassion and love for the sacred in humans that became his guide, as he began the course of a medical career.
Just as many trainees have experienced in medical education, however, Mike found that his demanding training as a physician and surgeon opposed his instinct for connection. He found that it actually required that he become more dispassionate and less empathetic.
He had “learned to treat patients without the emotional involvement that might cloud his clinical judgment,” in order to practice as a young surgeon. But one critical night in the Emergency Room, Mike hit a wall when he could not help but feel overwhelmingly deep emotions of connection and grief, after he was unable to save the life of a mangled, bleeding woman suffering injuries after an automobile collision.
This unexpected, intense emotional response turned Mike’s life around. It launched his journey into trying to reclaim the sacred inspiration and meaning that originally led him to choose the practice of medicine.
He describes his process of examining whether it was possible to practice medicine scientifically, but also to integrate his own emotions and those of his patients, “to make a surgical incision with full awareness of and compassion for the human being under the drapery.”
His new sense of self-realization, and his revived reverence for the spirit of each of his patients, led him to resolve that it must be possible “to find a union of science and spirituality in his work” — despite what most of the medical establishment taught.
In the current medical era, there are countless stories of physicians who have become terribly dissatisfied with their work, for various reasons. Many physicians are seeking renewal and a way to return to the joy of being a healer.
Dr. Denney’s story demonstrates how one physician was able to reclaim his own joy in medicine: “One way or another, I am going to find a way to stay connected with the deepest part of myself … and to include the spiritual aspect of healing as an integral and essential part of my work as a doctor.”
For Dr. Denney and many others, it turns out that caring for the patient as a whole being — mind, spirit and body — is an integral key to the joy of practicing medicine. This, says Dr. Denney, is the New Science of medicine, the integration of science and spirituality, which will lead to more complete healing of patients, physicians and the field of medicine itself.
Nobody’s Boy — An Old Doctor and a New Science is a richly personal, in-depth exploration of one physician’s journey of struggle, inspiration, dedication and reverence for the wholeness of human life and spirit. Mike Denney’s medical memoir offers an intriguing oasis of renewal, in which his story inspires us to reconnect to our spirits, and to remember the deepest meaning in the practice of medicine and healing.
Shieva Khayam-Bashi, MD, is a clinical professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and medical director in the Skilled Nursing Facility at San Francisco General Hospital.