No matter how many medical memoirs I read, I never seem to get enough. The best ones, I’ve found, lead me to a new understanding of how we, as biological creatures and thinking beings both, function. They bring me into a realization about myself and others that would not have otherwise occurred to me. I think this is a gift that this particular genre can give more easily than most other forms of nonfiction. Theresa Brown’s entry into the field, Critical Care, is a competent work written about the in-hospital training of the author as a nurse.
In her book, Brown discusses some of the standard concerns of a new nurse: feeling inadequately trained for some of the situations that arise; facing the strict chain of command that structures every hospital; dealing with horrible time constraints and unreasonable work loads; and learning to balance personal life.
Brown writes on these topics with an open hand, allowing the reader to easily grasp what is being said. She has a gift for making the reader understand what, exactly, is going on with a particular treatment or procedure, and is able to make most situations fairly approachable. I suspect this is because she has a background as an English professor, and has the technical skill to use language in a very effective way. In fact, I think her idiosyncratic career history makes her story more compelling — it’s quite the career change to go from being in front of a classroom to being in a hospital room, hanging an IV.
She takes a look at some interesting topics, such as injuring her knee after becoming a nurse and viewing the role of patient from within, rather than without. In fact, the book is full of fascinating stories about patients, the learning process, and on keeping one’s humanity while working with those who are ill. It takes a while to realize that even those people Brown discusses as having gone into remission are more likely than not either dead or experiencing relapses. How hard that must be for their caregivers, both past and present, to handle.
The stories she tells about her experiences and the people she has known and taken care of are not, however, ultimately satisfying. The main reason for this is that she doesn’t manage to provide a feeling of depth to the lessons she attempts to impart. Her anecdotes and recalled stories all have an underlying message of some sort or another, but are lacking the aspect of new insight. The things she tries to teach feel as if they have been discussed before and been discussed better; she has nothing to add to the conversation that is special or innovative.
This is sad, because I think, with a little more encouragement, Critical Care could go from being a mediocre nurse’s memoir to being a work of incredible power. Brown works with oncology patients, and, from what she has written here, she has had many powerful experiences. She just needs to be able to focus on creating tight narratives that can stand on their own, without the explanation of what should be gleaned from the story she feels compelled to include.