Incidental Findings

Medicine, Culture, and Life

Danielle Ofri

Danielle Ofri
New York, New York,
Danielle Ofri, M.D., Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Medicine at New York University School of Medicine and an internist at Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the country. She is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her newest book, Medicine in Translation: Journeys with my Patients--is about the experience of immigrants and Americans in the U.S. health care system. She is the author of two collections of essays about life in medicine: Incidental Findings: Lessons from my Patients in the Art of Medicine and Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue. Danielle Ofri's writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet, and on National Public Radio. Danielle Ofri is currently working on a set of essays about medicine, while several unfinished novels in various states of disrepair gather prime New-York-City dust under her bed. Ofri lives with her husband, three children, cello, and black-lab mutt in a singularly intimate Manhattan-sized apartment. Danielle's homepage is


MAY 18, 2010 12:07PM


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We like to think of human beings as social animals, and by and large we are. Most of us exist in complex networks of siblings, parents, children, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances. And usually we take this for granted.

Every so often, in my work at the hospital, I come across a patient who has lost all of their connections—estranged from family, living as a loner. Often, mental illness and/or drug addiction has played a role in this, but sometimes it is just a personality type. I wonder how it happened, and when I ask, the answer is usually something along the lines of, “Everyone sort of drifted away.”

For me, it elicits an existential fear of loneliness. My network of family and collegial connections is such an intrinsic part of my life, so heavily embedded that they are almost a sine qua non of my existence.

Meeting these patients without connections brings to the forefront the terrifying scenario of what life might be like without anyone else. And then the biggest nightmare plays out: what would it be like to die and have no one to mourn or even care.

Recently, I had a patient like this die suddenly. As I reviewed his life, I realized that he had no connections at all. It dawned on me that I might be the only one who’d had regular contact with him, the only one for whom his death would resonate.

It was a sadness that was hard to share, because no one else knew him. What would happen when my own memory of him faded? Would that be it?

You can read the entire essay in today's Science Times.


Danielle Ofri is a writer and practicing internist at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. She is the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her newest book is Medicine in Translation: Journeys with my Patients.

View the YouTube book trailer.

You can follow Danielle on Twitter and Facebook, or visit her homepage

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Best thing I've read today, Danielle, on an important topic. Thanks for writing this.
I read and appreciated your essay in yesterday's Times. Thank you for sharing your memories and feelings about this person who lived among us, but who was alone. I couldn't help but think about the estranged children and the void, the apparent lack of connection. The landlord, the neighbors, the stuff that is left behind, even maybe a message on the answering machine... I have had occasion to have to go and pick up the pieces in a situation where the person died suddenly without a good support system, and it was truly tragic. I share your mourning and, in a way am glad that you do mourn his loss, because we all are, at best, a few unlucky breaks away from being that person.
Take care and keep caring.