A doctor’s prescription for personal writing

Charles Bryan, MD – Skilled in philosophy, theology, psychology, medical history and more

Recently I have been rereading Columbia native Dr. Charles S. Bryan’s book “For Goodness Sake: The Seven Basic Virtues” published in 2006 as his “Valentine” to the members of Trinity Episcopal Church.  Bryan also gave a copy to my husband soon after it was published. 

The book’s very brief chapters, language, and easy explanations belie Bryan’s depth and breathe of knowledge in his several fields of interest and study.  His prose feels more like a personal conversation with the reader even though his impressive scholarship extends well beyond his medical specialty of infectious diseases and internal medicine to philosophy, theology, psychology, medical history and medical practice. 

The seven basic virtues in the title refer to the four Cardinal Virtues of wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. The three Transcendent Virtues, include faith, hope, and love (or charity).

Bryan writes that Love – the highest of the Transcendent Virtues – and Wisdom – the highest of the Cardinal Virtues – both help us make our decisions in the best interest of other people, not just ourselves.

Here is an example of a personal practice described in “For Goodness Sake” that may help you generate your own creative personal thinking.  It is based on a process used by doctors over the last 50 years known as “SOAP,” using the first letters of each of the four steps below as a template for recording notes about each patient’s clinical problems and the physician’s observations. 

  • Subjective includes what the patient reports in his or her own words
  • Objective describes results of physical examination and tests
  • Assessment is the physician’s evaluation
  • Plan is a direction to consider for diagnosis and treatment

At one of the institutions where Bryan trained, the letter L was added to include “Laboratory results.”  With this modification the new acronym SOLAP was created for medical notes.

In a creative move, Bryan “decided to try this for personal problems, the things that bothered me at the end of the day and that might interfere with my sleep.”  

Bryan’s directions to find a clearer understanding of your thoughts, feelings and emotions include: 

  • First, write a few sentences or more reflecting what is on your mind – your concerns or current thoughts.  Then write using his steps to assess your personal issues.
  • SUBJECTIVE: Write an “I feel” statement such as “I feel upset and afraid that…”
  • OBJECTIVE: Write what a neutral observer would say that has actually taken place.
  • LOVE: Write a statement allowing someone the benefit of the doubt.
  • ASSESSMENT: Write an unbiased appraisal of the situation.
  • PLAN: Write in a positive manner about what I can do, and plan to do.

A few copies of Bryan’s book “For Goodness Sake: The Seven Basic Virtues” are still available online at Abe Books, Alibris and Amazon and perhaps at Trinity Cathedral bookstore.  

Bryan’s newest book, William Osler: An Encyclopedia, available this April, is the most recent of several of Bryan’s previous publications featuring his preeminent mentor and role model who, like Bryan, was also a physician, philosopher, medical historian, and medical humanities writer. 

The year Bryan began medical school, his father who was also a physician in Columbia, SC, gave his son his personal copy of a collection of many of Osler’s better-known talks, the first of many books by and about Osler and by other writers including Bryan himself. 

Bryan retired from teaching at the UofSC School of Medicine in 2008. In typical understatement, in an interview he said: “I spent the last 8 ½ years of my career practicing in the hospital where I was born.”

Today, he devotes his time to study and writing about medical history and the humanities commenting, “I’ve pretty much defined my adult life as a seamless series of projects.  There’s always the next hill.”   

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