David Kopacz, MD
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Learning to Save the Self
Samuel Shem's Portrayal of Trauma and Medical Education

Presented at the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
Annual Meeting
Washington D.C. | November 1998

Abstract: Samuel Shem’s novel, The House of God, is a narrative account of the protagonist, Roy Basch’s, internship year in medicine. The book depicts a young, idealistic intern's struggle to learn medicine and stay human while immersed in death and illness. This struggle occurs between Roy's developing professional, medical self and his non-medical self. The values of the medical self are objectivity, certainty, and calm in the face of death, which conflict with the human characteristics of emotional subjectivity, uncertainty, and fear in the face of death. There is a cost to the development of Roy’s medical self; he begins to lose his capacity to feel emotions and to relate meaningfully with others. Eventually, Roy rejects the medical self as incompatible with the capacity to be fully human, and he comes to view the profession itself as a disease. He embarks on a project to recapture his humanity. To do this he must struggle to reconnect with others. One aspect of this reconnection is his narrative of his experiences with dehumanization.

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