“A surgeon’s job is to cut. You’ve got one shot. You go in. You fix it. You get out. I’d rather you cut straight and cared less.”
These are the words of Dr. Jack MacKee (William Hurt) as he lectures a clutch of interns, though the words themselves might have come from an auto mechanic teaching at a tech school. Some of the students question him about caring for their patients on a human level. He tells them there is danger in feeling too strongly about patients. To Dr. MacKee, brilliant surgeon, life is a laugh and a game and he dances to his own beat. Everything outside his self-interests stays at arm’s length. That includes his wife Anne (Christine Lahti), and son Joey (Adam Wylie).
Then a throat condition becomes something more serious. His life is now in the hands of strangers who care nothing for him, who talk at and around him rather than to him. Strangers who care more for their schedules than how and what he is feeling. He gets indoctrinated into the realm of vulnerability and humiliation. Poked and prodded, he retaliates by being reluctantly, and often rudely obedient to the rules lesser people must endure and abide by. Like filling out the same forms repeatedly.
He lets them know that he is a doctor on the staff of this hospital. He insists on a private room while waiting for his procedure, even though there are no rooms or beds available. His doctor is late. He’s lying on a gurney in a breezy hospital gown as the nurse snatches his curtain aside and exposes him. He is mistaken for the colon patient in the next bed and given an enema. His status has dropped from the heights of Dr. Olympus, to the lowliness of a mere patient. And he is terrified about his prognosis.
As he waits for his appointment one day he is notified by the nurse that the doctor won’t be able to see him for his treatment. While he unloads on the poor woman, a pretty girl sitting near him with her head covered in a scarf, is watching him. Her name is June Ellis (Elizabeth Perkins).
“There’s not much point shouting at Laurie,” she says.
“Excuse me?” he says, in his highbrow, are-you-speaking-to-me manner.
“She’s only doing her job. If you want to shout go shout at a doctor.”
“I am a doctor.”
“Not when you’re sittin’ here.”
“How come you’re so calm?” he asks abrasively.
And thus begins a friendship that will change his life and break his heart. As he grows from a fallen god to a mere human being, he begins to reevaluate his life, his relationships, his friendships. And sometimes, those he tolerated, and often ridiculed, become more appreciated than he ever thought possible.
The lecture he gives the interns toward the end of the movie is a far cry from the one he gave at the beginning. I’m sure you will appreciate, as I did, the new personal and physical elements of his teaching style, because, he says, “I could stand here and explain it to you till I’m blue in the face and it would do no good.”
Years ago, I shared this movie with a young woman who lived in my neighborhood. I knew she was having some problems and needed just a little kindness. When she left, she was subdued and quiet. The next day her boyfriend came looking for her. I learned a few weeks later that she had checked herself into a hospital, I think for rehab. This movie is powerful. It ought to be a viewing requirement for every doctor and every person who is vulnerable, sick, and afraid.
Note: There are also some fine performances by Mandy Patinkin as Dr. Murray Caplan and Adam Arkin as Dr. Eli Blumfield. You might remember Elizabeth Perkins as Susan in “Big” with Tom Hanks.