Tag Archives: surgery

Hot Lights, Cold Steel by Michael J. Collins

Hot Lights, Cold Steel is, in a way, like many other books I’ve read before.  It’s a medical memoir, a genre I have an interest in.  Yet it manages to set itself apart through Collins’ sensitive and insightful prose about not only his training, but, really, about the entirety of his life through the four years of his residency.  Collins has written a book enjoyable for many reasons, a feat not often achieved by a book typically focused on one, partitioned part of the author’s life.

The book starts off with a scenario Collins faced toward the end of his residency — being in charge of the almost impossible decision of whether to amputate a fourteen-year-old’s leg.  Collins then takes us back to the beginning of his residency at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in orthopedic medicine, outlining his four years there in chapters labeled by month.

One of the most refreshing things about Hot Lights, Cold Steel is that Collins is so open about the fear and uncertainty he had going in.  He felt inadequate and unprepared for a residency at such a renowned medical center.  He discusses his efforts to study up on procedures and conditions he would have to do.  He discusses the friendships that he made and the quick understanding he had to make of the personalities of each of the attending physicians he worked under.

More interesting was his discussion of the paltry amount of money a resident makes, even at a place like Mayo Clinic.  He found himself forced to moonlight at a hospital in a city ninety miles to the west, which meant that he was even more exhausted than the average resident.

Making his life more complicated was his family situation.  He had, at the beginning of his residency, a wife and a young daughter.  By the end of the four years, they had added three more children to the mix.  His wife, who had training as a nurse, became a stay-at-home mom out of necessity.  Collins is very open about the strain the long hours away from home placed on their marriage, and how his relationships with his children suffered.  This was actually the part of the book I found most compelling — many of these medical memoirs discuss the physical exhaustion, but rarely discuss the toll the long hours and unpredictable schedules can take on a family.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about Hot Lights, Cold Steel.  Collins has produced a book that allows the reader into both his personal and professional life with remarkable ease.  From his writing, he feels like someone anyone could know, yet he has the brilliance to write about his experiences with both respect and humor.  This ability just makes him more interesting, and makes his book more appealing.

Rating: 5/5.

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Filed under 5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

While Cutting for Stone was on my reading list, it was not particularly high; it was a book I’d get to eventually.  My mother, however, bought it, read it, and passed it along.  I am glad she did, because Cutting for Stone is an engrossing family saga that, despite its length, I managed to get through in only a couple of days.

The book is about Anglo-Indian twins born in Ethiopia to a nun-nurse and a surgeon.  Abandoned by the father (who tried to perform in-the-birth-canal infanticide) and having lost their mother to the trials of their birth, they are taken in by the two other doctors at Missing Hospital.  The book follows Marion, the firstborn of the two boys, and his experience growing up in a multitude of ways: as a twin, as the child of doctors, as a ferengi despite having been born in Addis Ababa, as a witness to upheaval in Ethiopia, and as a romantic idealist.

Verghese does a wonderful job of crafting the events of Marion’s childhood and adolescence.  Marion and his brother, Shiva, have a companion in Genet, an Eritrean servant’s daughter.  The pettiness of his childhood grudges and mixed feelings about Genet and Shiva snowball into something very interesting throughout the book.  His emotions are understandable and very human.

Hema and Ghosh, the two doctors who, for all intents and purposes are Marion and Shiva’s parents, are very good parents.  The only thing I question about them is something that also makes the book totally worth reading if you’re at all interested in surgery: they allow their sons access to medical texts, Gray’s Anatomy, and, eventually, let them watch and participate in procedures.

The most amazing component of this book is the detailed surgical and medical description.  Abraham Verghese is himself a physician, and he manages to create a real surgical scene while not making it feel as if it were artificially plopped down in the middle of a chapter.  It’s just so wonderfully crafted that I can barely believe it.

The only drawback Cutting for Stone has is that the ending wraps up a bit too neatly.  There are a few too many coincidences and a few too many things that just cause me to lose my suspension of disbelief.  This is most likely because the rest of the book is so realistic.  I understand Verghese’s choices regarding how he ended the book; I just don’t feel like they made for the most realistic — or satisfying — conclusion.

Overall, Cutting for Stone is a well-crafted, realistic tale about a family both brought together and torn apart by the same things — medicine, education, and love.  It’s too bad that the last part of Marion’s story didn’t hold to the realistic standard Verghese had set up through the vast majority of the book.

Rating: 4/5.

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Stitches by David Small

I must be somehow fascinated by people who have become ill.  I’ve read quite a few books dealing with sickness in some fashion.  I’ve even read another graphic novel about a case of cancer, Mom’s Cancer.  But Stitches is more than just being about David Small’s childhood disease.  In fact, I would argue that his cancer is one of many events he uses to highlight a seriously dysfunctional family and its impact on him.  This makes Stitches compelling in a way that a straight story about his health never could have been.

Small’s drawings make up no small part of setting the mood and tone of the book, which is why I love that he chose to draw his memoir.  The people are almost uniformly drawn tight, with knit brows, frowns, and generally hostile body language.  No one is portrayed as friendly toward Small until we meet his psychologist toward the end, and he’s drawn as a rabbit — I believe he was the March Hare, mainly because Small had a fascination with Alice in Wonderland as a child.

Small also has an incredible sense of when pictures can convey more than words ever could.  The horror of the research floor of the hospital, for example, is much more effective because Small shows us the jars of fetuses, then his face, in alternate cells.  It makes way more of an impact than writing something on how he saw the jars and imagined that one got out and started chasing him.

Now, down to the actual memoir.  Small’s family is dysfunctional in the extreme.  His father is mostly absent, home only occasionally from his job as a radiologist at a Detroit hospital.  When he is home, he alternates between lecturing his son and giving him x-rays to look at his sinuses, which most likely caused his subsequent cancer.  His maternal grandmother is a nutcase, treating Small in a horrible fashion when they visit her in southern Indiana.

But it is his mother who is truly the worst person in Small’s life.  She is cold, almost always angry.  She blames Small when he develops the lump on his neck that requires surgery, telling him “doctors cost money and money is something that is in short supply in this house!”  After an original misdiagnosis of the lump as a cebaceous cyst, they wait three and a half years before allowing a surgeon operate on his neck.  During the gap, his parents bought a new car and new furniture.  After the removal of his lump, along with one of his vocal cords, his mother didn’t tell him the lump was cancer.  She showed no sympathy for her son, who suffered from recurring nightmares and would frequently turn on all the lights in the house.  Her concern was with the electric bill.

Her miserable and, at times, tyrannical, behavior could possibly be explained by her sexual orientation and the influence of her mother.  She may have felt trapped in her marriage by society and her children.  It is almost inconceivable, though, that someone would have the capacity to so hate their own child, a being dependent upon her to do what is best for him.  Being frustrated with how her life turned out cannot excuse her callousness for a boy who was sick and needed her help.

The only good thing they appear to have done for him is put him in therapy.  His therapist was able to clarify many things for him, and I believe that therapist made it possible for Small to have a relatively normal post-childhood life.  Really, the therapist showed him how a caring relationship should work, and quite probably saved Small from following in his mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps.

This book is phenomenal in its exploration of what it’s like growing up in a hostile environment.  As someone who has two caring and supportive parents, Small provided me with insight into how one’s environment can shape you.  One can end up like his mother — twisted, bitter, and cruel — or you can end up like him, a survivor who came through his ordeals, both regarding his health and his home, and became a successful man who becomes the maverick of his family by being normal.  Stitches is a superior memoir that packs a lot of emotional punch.

Rating: 5/5

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