What makes a "good doctor?" It depends on whom you ask, according to physician, filmmaker, novelist and educator Gar LaSalle, who will deliver the 7th annual James McClellan Lecture on Humanity in Clinical Care on Oct. 14. LaSalle has taught courses at multiple colleges and universities and holds degrees from Weill Cornell Medicine, the California Institute of the Arts and the University of California, Los Angeles Department of Emergency Medicine. His visit is sponsored by the James McClellan Lectureship Fund and Advisory Board and by the Whitman College Health Professions Advising Program.
Your lecture is titled: "In Search of the ‘Good Doctor'—The Portrayal of the Physician by the Patient, Media and Insiders." Can you give us a preview?
In the lecture, I will discuss a number of related issues, including the influences and influencers that shape perceptions of just what a "good doctor" is or should be. Given the differing metrics used by insiders and outsiders to define a "good doctor"—from my career perspective as a clinician, physician-director and educator—I also will discuss the challenges and opportunities in addressing some of the problems, such as depression and burnout, that are related to the challenge of achieving and maintaining the "good doctor" title. Those challenges unfortunately still exist in the education and practice of physicians. If there is time, we may show some scenes from Diary of a Moonlighter (1976), the first-ever documentary about the new field of emergency medicine, which I filmed in Los Angeles in 1975.
You're a medical doctor and a filmmaker. You're also a novelist and professor. Which of those fields most inspires you?
As disparate as they seem, the disciplines are all related as art forms and share aspects that resonate strongly with me. First, they are all about communicating with other souls—and if one is to be proficient at any one of them, one must be, first and foremost, a great observer and listener. Secondly, the languages, rhetoric and vocabulary of each discipline inform the others. The physician and poet William Carlos Williams said: "The poem springs from the half-spoken words of such patients as the physician sees from day to day." I definitely found that to be true when I practiced as an emergency room physician in Los Angeles while also attending the California Institute of the Arts for my M.F.A. in filmmaking. Thirdly, each of the fields requires one's surviving long enough and well enough to be able to fully express oneself. I have learned from first- and secondhand experience that the writer, filmmaker and teacher must find a sustaining audience.
Your forthcoming novel The Fairness of Beasts (Solipsis Publishing, 2017) is the third in your Widow Walk saga of books. What inspired the series?
The saga will take one very strong woman and her family through the quest for universal emancipation and enlightenment that burgeoned during the latter half of the 19th century in the United States. The first book, which is based on true events that occurred in the mid-19th century Pacific Northwest, began as a treatment for a screenplay. Encouraged by a producer whom I trusted to take the story and put it into a "property" that would be more durable than another spec screenplay, I began research in earnest. In that process, I discovered a rich and little-known history about this region and the violent, tragic confrontations that inevitably occur when disparate cultures are introduced to each other. From my readings of pioneer diaries related to the events, I invented a strong and plausible protagonist, Emmy Evers, whose trials would amply characterize the plight of women during that time. The book was successful and won several awards. I was then urged by my editor, the publisher and several readers to keep the characters alive somehow. So I took on that challenge.
Whitman hosts an array of guest speakers and educators. Many also offer on-campus workshops or engage with students in the classroom. We ask them to give us a brief insight into their area of expertise. For more information on upcoming events at Whitman, go online to the campus calendar.