Prescription: Books

Aneka Larsen has some medicinal book recommendations for those idle holiday minds… 

Two common ailments among medical students are:

  1. The desire to run away and hide, just for a little bit, please
  2. Constantly asking yourself why you are putting yourself through this

To cure you of these truly debilitating conditions, I offer you two very important prescriptions.

PRESCRIPTION ONE: A BOOK TO HELP YOU ESCAPE MEDICINE

The World Without UsMireille Juchau

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This is a book that feels like Australia. The Australia of my childhood, tucked away in a neat little bundle of memories, sacrosanct and intangible. What a treat to dive back in, to explore the muddy riverbanks, bush land and tight-knit community of a rural town that is infused with its own unique history and culture. The Big Smoke is a whirlwind of excitement, but it sure feels nice to momentarily escape, nestle into the cosy, green tableau of the Ghost Mountains and dream for a while.

The Müller family are a made-up family in a made-up town somewhere in a northern rainforest. Their family is complex. A distant mother heals herself with painting and secret sojourns to the woods. A gentle, eccentric father tends to bees and his two young girls, Tess and Meg. The girls try to make sense of their world, their mother, and the ever-changing emotional landmine that is growing up.

Juchau offers up a plethora of and touching and nostalgic insights into life and adolescence in rural Australia. They are a community of strange yet jarringly familiar characters; A doomsday fanatic, a wily family friend, busybodies, cult members, farmers, merchants and criminals. As well, the imagery is familiar and comforting; sections of the book are demarcated with odes to flowers, the rain, and the bees. There are narratives I remember from my own past; Silly competitions with my sister, a refusal to speak, running away from home, riding silently in the passenger seat through the dirt roads of my hometown. The knowledge that members of your community do not like your family for reasons you are too young to understand. The special attention proffered by a favourite teacher who encourages your curiosity and offers you books to devour. The feeling of being home.

If you come from somewhere else; somewhere quieter, somewhere that flickers behind your eyes as you fall asleep, a place far from flashing, beeping, bustling Sydney, then I hope you read this book. It was a pleasure to fall into, a pleasure to be carried away by, and a truly dream-like dance through the warming nostalgia of an Australian childhood.

 

PRESCRIPTION TWO: A BOOK TO REMIND YOU OF WHY YOU’RE DOING MEDICINE

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A HatOliver Sacks

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As someone who today listened to six lectures in the library, came home to read a chapter on the GIT exam, and then fall asleep across the table from my dinner, I have a deep understanding of what it feels like to question one’s life choices. Luckily for me, there are those in the world who act as beacons of inspiration, guiding the way from out behind my bowl of soup, into the wider world of real medicine making a real difference to real patients. The first of such beacons was, for me, Oliver Sacks. A brilliant neurologist and author, whose books emanate a profoundly sincere respect for his patients, and a humbling acknowledgment that the people we care for can be our most important teachers.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat is a series of case studies that detail the intriguing and bizarre neurological phenomena Sacks encounters throughout his career. Such cases include a man suffering from agnosia who is compensated with a gift for music, a woman who can no longer feel her own body, an elderly man seemingly stuck in his past, a man who cannot believe that his leg is his own, and a ninety year old woman who has started to feel “frisky”. Sacks regales these stories with deep consideration not just for the neurological pathology, but for the character and substance of the patient before him. Each case study illuminates a special individual and reminds us of the privilege studying medicine affords us – the ability to play a significant role in the lives of significant individuals.

Anatomy atlases, ankis and academia abound can make anyone feel apathetic from time to time. Admonish these unwelcome feelings by reminding yourself of the people you will meet, the stories you will hear, and the difference you can make. There is no better way to do that than with the tried and true, evidence-based method of immersing yourself in an Oliver Sacks novel. This is one of his best. NNT = 1.

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Do No Harm- By Henry Marsh

 

 

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Do No Harm: stories of life, death and brain surgery, is the autobiography of eminent English neurosurgeon Mr Henry Marsh.

Joel Selby reviews for Innominate. 

“Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray – a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures”

-Prologue to Do No Harm

A few years ago an eminent English neurosurgeon gave a talk to an audience of his American colleagues. The speech was titled, “All My Worst Mistakes” and detailed the failures and upsets in his long and distinguished surgical career. Once he had finished speaking, a stunned silence echoed throughout the room. There were no questions asked.

The speaker was Henry Marsh, by all accounts one of Britain’s foremost neurosurgeons – in his 27 years as a consultant he has received honours from The Queen, been the subject of two films and pioneered neurosurgery in which the patient is kept awake under local anaesthetic.

However, at the end of his career, he crossed a line from which surgeons usually flee; he revealed his mistakes for public scrutiny.

His autobiography Do No Harm can be thought of as an extension of this project – a neurosurgeon’s attempt to ‘bear witness’ to a lifetime spent trying to heal, but often injuring, disfiguring, and sometimes even killing his patients.

One aspect of neurosurgery that haunts Marsh is that when a mistake is made in other specialties, the patient either still manages to recover or dies. In neurosurgery, the patient can go on to live a long, disfigured and disabled life because of the slip of a cauterizer, or a surgeon’s over-reaching ambition. For example, fifteen hours into a complex operation, the atmosphere in the theatre is relaxed as Marsh slowly dissects a tumour from a patient’s brainstem, while ABBA’s CDs play in the background. Marsh writes that  ‘I should have stopped at that point, left the last piece of tumour behind, but I wanted to be able to say I’d removed all of the tumour’. In this final step, he tears a branch of the basilar artery and the patient, a school-teacher, never regains consciousness. Years later, while visiting a nursing home, Marsh walks down a corridor and recognises the names outside many rooms. For him it is a nightmarish mausoleum of patients he has failed and later forgotten, and the schoolteacher sits unresponsive on a bed, ‘curled into a sad ball…I will not describe the pain.’ For Marsh these catastrophic consequences, and the crushing responsibility he feels for his patients, constantly weigh over him.

However, the overall tone of the book is not about guilt and mortality. Marsh weaves in the wonder he feels about the brain, the thrill of operating, moments of success and humour amongst the disasters, regrets and the daily grind of bureaucratic protocols.

He is incredibly candid in dealing with things like the impact of his career on his marriage, his child’s brain tumour and unpleasant subjects like the entitlement he feels as a surgeon, which makes this a refreshing and arresting read.

There are books you might read for interest, and those which might help you become a better doctor. Do No Harm is definitely one, if not both.