The mythological character Philoctetes has captured the imaginations of medical educators. The wound on his foot is a symbol of physical pain as well as psychological suffering. His suffering stems from isolation and mistrust as much as it does from a physical wound. This essay offers a re-reading of Sophocles’s version of the story that focuses on the second-personal relationships between Philoctetes and the inanimate and nonhuman elements of his exile. Following on philosopher Eleonore Stump’s defense of theodicy, a close reading of the play offers insight into interacting with hostile or reticent patients by listening to second-personal dialogic address. The theme of the “difficult patient” is addressed in conclusion, proposing that mistrust between practitioner and patient is still more prevalent than current medical education acknowledges and that clinical communication skills can be broadened by attending to the human use of second-personal relationships. The essay is grounded by a personal reflection on caring for a patient from the multiple perspectives of surgeon, Palliative Medicine doctor, and clinical ethics consultant.
- difficult patient
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