“Doctors are human, just like the rest of us. Much of what happens in hospitals is a matter of luck, both good and bad; success and failure are often out of the doctor’s control. Knowing when not to operate is just as important as knowing how to operate, and is a more difficult skill to acquire.”
It is difficult for those outside health care to understand what a doctor’s life is like, how much apprehension a doctor faces day in and day out, how much training and experience a doctor needs to be a better one, what a doctor feels when faced with gravely ill person.
Many of us do write about our experience, in our own way, but I doubt many would understand or even believe what we say. The only thing that could make them at least slightly understand is to have a few lives in their hands and having to attend to them urgently at the same time, wishing to be able to do more for them.
Henry Marsh is a British neurosurgeon, working with the NHS. He was involved with two BBC documentaries, and was rewarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2010.
This book was written to help people understand the difficulties that doctors face. In his book, he did not only tell us about the patients that he operated along his career, he went deeper on the challenges of making his decisions, the heavy heart felt when he had to break bad news, and what happens when things go wrong in a surgery.
It is written in chapters; although the stories are not exactly continuous, at times we could tell what he’s going to talk about in the next chapter.
My favourite chapter is Angor Animi, where he spoke about his journey of becoming a doctor. There were snippets of his experience as a junior doctor, and how he came about to be a neurosurgeon. One of the most unforgettable moments was his encounter with a man very close to his death.
“Angor animi – the sense of being in the act of dying, differing from the fear of death or the desire for death.”
His accounts on working in Kiev, Ukraine with a mentee, Igor Kurilets, was quite interesting. I made a few gasps while reading through those stories which may have turned heads if I were to read the book in a train.
The book brought me back to those days when I was a student in Ireland, back to the time I was doing my exams just recently, as well as those long days (and nights) as a house officer, spent in the operating theatres assisting the surgeons and their trainees. Speaking about neurosurgery, I was also reminded of a neurosurgeon in the hospital I work in whom I highly respect; it was a great opportunity to have worked with him during my endocrine rotation.
As much as I love the book, I did not agree with everything that he said. He did write about the human nature of doctors, how we can’t control everything in front of us, no matter how much we tried. However that humility did not extend further.
Yes, we have discovered so much with the technology that we have now. However, any neurologists or neurosurgeons could tell you that there are so much more things that we have yet to know about the human brain, about the human body. There are mysteries that keeps on appearing and there are always new things that we realise we do not know, despite our discoveries.
Somehow, not many scientists these days are humble enough to say, maybe Someone else Knows better. Not many have the humility anymore, to say that although we could not see something at this very moment, it does not mean that thing does not exist.
This kind of thinking and attitude would limit science and creativity, and possibly limits further discoveries. There are so many things in life that we know about now, could not be seen with our eyes 2000 years ago, but that does not mean they did not exist 2000 years ago.
If a good, well organised, scientific conference could not happen by chance, if an efficient public transport system could never happen by chance, how could our complex human brain with its neurones, neurotransmitters, synapses, that carry movements, sensations, thoughts, reasons, emotions, motivations, love and joy, happen by chance? How could our complex human body have happened by mere chance?
I would read this book again and again, perhaps some chapters more than the others, for it reminds me that we are all the same. We have the same deep concerns for our patients and should carry on doing an honest job for the sake of the others, as we were given this privilege, and hence responsibilities, to do it right.
I shall close this review with one of my favourite quotes from the book:
“The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason, that memories, dreams and reflections should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand.”