The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness

ISBN: 0060847956
ISBN 13: 9780060847951
By: Michael Stein

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About this book

When someone is diagnosed with a serious illness, he or she is taking the first step on an overwhelmingly challenging and confusing journey. For many, it is as if they are traveling to someplace entirely new and they must go there alone, with only faded directions back to their old lives. Often, even their loved ones can only guess at what they must be experiencing.The Lonely Patient is a clear-eyed and deeply affecting examination of the inner life of those grappling with illness. It looks into the chasm between the well and the sick by exploring and giving voice to the often unarticulated aspects of illness, offering people with illness—and their family and friends—a frank and intelligent discussion of how to negotiate the psychological and emotional aspects of what they are going through.Michael Stein, M.D., a professor of medicine at Brown University Medical School as well as an acclaimed novelist, uses the stories of a number of patients, including that of his beloved, terminally ill brother-in-law, Richard, to consider the personal narrative of sickness. What sets Stein's book apart is his intimate scrutiny of the uniqueness of each patient's experience, which he breaks into four parts—betrayal, terror, loss, and loneliness—and renders each in such a way that he opens a dialogue about our expectations of health and, after its shocking disappearance, of illness.Beautifully written and keenly insightful, The Lonely Patient is a valuable book for patients and their caregivers—as well as a probing inquiry into a universal experience.

Reader's Thoughts


I think all doctors should read this book. All med students and residents should pick up a copy. It's a lot cheaper than a textbook, too. Perhaps if more doctors read this book there would be more empathy for the patients who have a life-threatening or terminal or chronic illness. Sadly, I have known few who have taken the time to listen to what I am feeling about the diagnosis, emotion wise. They are all to eager to discuss physical symptoms, but let's leave the metaphorical heart out of it. So I always end up walking away feeling more lonely than I did before the visit or the phone call.


Visceral account of the emotions experienced by an ill person. Telling accounts of people who face extremely difficult prognoses, how they feel defined by their illness and lack of good health, and how they deal with it. Very powerful.

Bryan Kibbe

Michael Stein brings a physician's insight and a storyteller's craft to this insightful account of human illness. While physiological accounts of human pain are relatively easy to come by, genuine insight into the meaning of illness and the existential suffering often associated with it is more difficult to find. The Lonely Patient offers a careful and engaging consideration of the emotions that a patient must come to terms with following a significant medical diagnosis of disease or sickness. Personally, I was most struck by Stein's observation of the feeling of self-betrayal that a patient feels when they learn that there body is not performing the way it is supposed to. Stein's efforts to weave such insights as these amidst his own experiences with patients makes this one of of the best pieces of medical non-fiction around.


To be particularly honest, I was sadly unimpressed with this book. What could have been an emotionally overflowing and moving book was written like a high school essay, including the obligatory dictionary definitions of important words and obscure quotes from books no reader would know.Do not recommend. Apologies to my mentor, who recommended this book to me. Grrr....

Jessica Rae

I'm only halfway through this book, but here's what I can say at this point:Stein's objective is to represent the experience of illness from the perspective of the sufferer. His notion of illness revolves around the common metaphor that illness is a journey into foreign territory. Stein emphasizes the importance of the patient's narrating her illness as a means of discovery, and a process by which she can find empowerment, psychic release, and (sometimes) pain-relief. Simultaneously, Stein recognizes the difficulty of representing pain linguistically, and the frustrating "wordlessness" and isolation (alienation, even) that pain experiences inflict. He relies heavily on Elaine Scarry's work in "The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World." Anyone who has read Scarry's groundbreaking book will recognize her first two chapters in simplified form in Stein's "The Lonely Patient." "The Lonely Patient" is highly-accessible, pleasant reading. It contains some interesting clinical tales It will serve as a useful, rudimentary, introduction to contemporary biocultural pain theories, but it won't give you much of the nitty-gritty. For advanced information you'll have to go elsewhere.


I read this book shortly after undergoing brain surgery. Although I have been chronically ill for some time, it helped me better come to terms with the fact that challenges associated with serious illness are not purely physical. Indeed, we are also often stripped of our career and social ranks, and are left desperately searching for a new identity with a perception on life that becomes almost unrecognizable. The author of this book carefully takes us through this emotional journey, breaking it down into four stages: betrayal, terror, loss, and loneliness. The book is thoroughly researched, accurate and well written and can be easily understood by the layperson. I could personally relate to many of the descriptions he gave and his comments were very touching. This little companion is a must read for patients and is a great way to help your family and friends understand what you are going through. The book is also highly beneficial reading for medical professionals, social workers and caregivers to better serve patients with chronic pain (this should be required reading in medical schools!)

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