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The Silence of Doctors Around Alzheimer’s

The Silence of Doctors Around Alzheimer’s

by Danielle Ofri

New York Times

“A fate worse than death,” my colleague muttered to me as we examined an elderly man admitted to the hospital with severe dementia.

From his medical chart we knew that the patient had been an accomplished sculptor and intellectual contrarian. He’d taught classes at a prestigious art school, and his work was exhibited across Europe and the United States. To see him now, with hardly a sliver of his personality left, encumbered with physical injustices you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy, was beyond heartrending.

There was something almost shameful in bearing witness to a fellow human being’s profound indignities. I was embarrassed for him, for how embarrassed he would likely be, if his former self could see his current self. That his current self lacked the capacity to be aware of his state offered little comfort.

My colleague and I ducked out of the room in silence, lost in our own private stew of unease, wincing at our unspoken keenness to move on to other patients.

Dementia is not something we doctors talk much about. We all have many patients with dementia — and more every year — but we never seem to chat about it the way we discuss kidney disease or cancer treatment. We may talk about the difficulties of obesity or emphysema, but never about dementia.

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About the Author

Danielle Ofri’s newest book is What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine. She is a physician at Bellevue Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at N.Y.U. School of Medicine. She is also editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review.

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