Sulmasy on ‘A Story About Fred’


On Thursday, Nov. 5, St. Norbert College welcomed Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, who presented “On Being a Doctor: Lessons from a Patient Named Fred” in the Fort Howard Theater as part of the Killeen Chair Lecture Series.

In his presentation, Dr. Sulmasy reflected on a single patient-physician relationship, and the spiritual components of the experience. Through his interesting interactions with this patient named Fred, he was able to learn a lot and give a different perspective on medicine and treatment to others.

Dr. Sulmasy is the Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and Ethics in the Department of Medicine and Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He is the associate director for the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics and the director of the Program on Medicine and Religion. Studying medical ethics, he researches controversial issues such as the difference between killing and allowing one to die, and looks at theology and philosophy in treatment.

Most of his lecture came in the form of a story, as he began to describe his first encounter with Fred. This patient had attended his lecture months ago, and asked him to be his doctor. He insisted, and, Sulmasy lightly commented about this, “Now, this is one of the problems that accompanies the giving of public lectures. If you sound sincere, people believe you. They might even believe in you. And if they do, this forces you either to live up to their expectations or avoid getting involved.”

Choosing to get involved, he continued to see Fred while he was in the hospital, and when his health declined further, at Fred’s house. He described the man’s faith, how he nearly always had rosary beads in his hand and prayed often.

“He had very little pain throughout most of the course of his illness,” Sulmasy recalled. “He did lose weight, and his appetite remained quite poor. Nonetheless, he could still read the papers, pray the rosary and tell people what to do.”

Fred’s final weekend took place while Sulmasy was at a retreat, but he kept his beeper on and offered to be there for whatever was needed.  However, he accidentally left the beeper on vibrate and did not wake up until the next morning. Upon calling, he learned that Fred had died peacefully in the night, surrounded by family and friends.

Throughout his story, Sulmasy’s biggest question was, “What did he want from me?” He didn’t realize it at first, but he guessed that it was not really him that Fred wanted.

“It had not been me that Fred had been looking for after all, not ever. You see each time he had asked me for something, a sleeping pill, a hospital bed, he was really looking for someone else.”

When asked what he had learned from this, Sulmasy responded that he learned that he wouldn’t always be able to meet everyone’s needs, and that he needed to remember to have patience.

“Their suffering,” he said, “emerges out of a narrative of their lives.”


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