The Optimized Doctor

Timeless stories


Let me tell you a story. In 5 billion years the sun will run out of hydrogen, the fuel it is currently burning to power my solar panels amongst other things. At that time, the sun will no longer be able to keep its core contracted and will expand into a fiery, red giant, engulfing earth and obliterating any sign that we ever existed. No buildings. No blog posts. No mausoleums. No stories. Nothing of us will remain.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Well, here for a moment anyway, I’ve gotten you to think about something other than COVID. You’re welcome.

Fascinatingly, the image in your mind’s eye right now of a barren scorched landscape was put there by me. Simply by placing a few words together I have caused new thoughts in your head. You might even share this story with someone else – I would have actually changed your behavior through the power of language. This miraculous phenomenon seems to be unique to us humans; we are the only ones who can create whole worlds in another individual’s head just by making a few sounds. We in medicine have the privilege of experiencing this miracle every day.

Last week, a 97-year-old pale, frail, white man saw me for a basal cell carcinoma on his cheek. While performing a simple electrodesiccation and curettage, I asked if he remembers getting a lot of sunburns when he was young. He certainly remembered one. On a blustery sunny day, he fell asleep for hours on the deck of the USS West Virginia while in the Philippines. As a radio man, he was exhausted from days of conflict and he recalled how warm breezes lulled him asleep. He was so sunburned that for days he forgot how afraid he was of the Japanese.

After listening to his story, I had an image in my mind of palm trees swaying in the tropical winds while hundreds of hulking gray castles sat hidden in the vast surrounding oceans awaiting one of the greatest naval conflicts in history. I got to hear it from surely one of the last remaining people in existence to be able to tell that story. Listening to a patient’s tales is one of the benefits of being a physician. Not only do they help bond us with our patients, but also help lessen our burden of having to make diagnosis after diagnosis and write note after note for hours on end. Somehow performing yet another biopsy that day is made just a bit easier if I’m also learning about what it was like at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Encouraging patients to talk more can be risky. No physician, not even allergists, can afford to be waylaid by a retiree with nothing else to do today. But meaningful encounters can not only be a vaccine against burnout, they also lead to better patient adherence and satisfaction. Sometimes, there is simply not time. But often there is a little window during a procedure or when you’re reasonably caught up and don’t expect delays ahead. When patients say that a doctor really listened to me, it is often not their medical history, but their life story they mean. And like every story, they literally transform us, the listener. In a true physical sense, their stories live on in me, and now that I’ve shared this one in writing, also with you for perpetuity. That is at least for the next 5 billion years when it, too, will be swallowed by the sun, leaving only a crispy, smoking rock where we once existed.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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