WVU doctor’s essay in JAMA recounts up-close look at life and death

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – For Robert Johnstone, M.D., the intersection of I-68 and Cheat Road has brought him close to human suffering of the worst kind – the kind he could do nothing to help alleviate. Driving home from work at West Virginia University Hospitals, the WVU professor of anesthesiology came upon a teenaged motorcycle driver, dead. A cross now memorializes the site.

Close by is the site of another fatal accident – one that claimed the teenaged daughter of a colleague whom Dr. Johnstone remembers comforting in the hospital’s emergency room. Although Johnstone has himself experienced the loss of a child, “There’s not much to say in terrible situations, so mostly I just sat with him.”

Johnstone’s moving account of these incidents, titled “Driving Thoughts,” is published in the current issue of JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association).

Through the months and years that followed the motorcycle crash, Johnstone learned more about the boy who died and even experienced a chance meeting with the father.

Robert Johnstone, M.D.

Johnstone writes of his workday commutes that take him past crosses and flowers arranged by grieving survivors:
“Sometimes when passing them I wonder about the fragility of life, why bad things happen, and the limits of my medical skills…. Cheat Lake intersection triggers disparate thoughts – the meaning of life, coping with death, my roles as a physician, preventing harm, the luck of timing, strategies for happiness, the importance of what I do.”

JAMA, which has the largest circulation of any general medical journal, has previously published Johnstone’s work.


For more information:
Andrea Brunais, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087
AB: 09-14-09

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