CBR 10 BINGO Square: AWARD WINNER: PEN Ackerly Prize in 2015
Best for: People who like stories from clinicians but don’t mind a mildly obnoxious storyteller.
In a nutshell: Henry Marsh has been a brain surgeon for 40 years. So, y’know, he’s got some stories.
“She would be added to the list of my disasters — another headstone in that cemetery with the French surgeon Leriche once said all surgeons carry within themselves.”
“Informed consent sounds so easy in principle … The reality is very different. Patients are both terrified and ignorant. How are they to know whether the surgeon is competent or not? They will try to overcome their fear by investing the surgeon with superhuman abilities.”
Why I chose it:
I love medical stories. Don’t know why. But I do.
This was not my favorite. It’s not a bad book – and obviously many people think it is fantastic. In fact, the people sitting next to me on my flight home yesterday had read it and loved it. The stories are interesting for sure – and I like that each chapter is headed with a quick definition of the condition we’ll be learning about via a patient story in the pages to follow. But it’s not organized in any real way, there’s not much of a through-line or theme, and I was not impressed with some of the things the author shared.
Specifically, Marsh seems to hate fat people, hate administrators and any policy that means he doesn’t get to do things the exact way he wants, and generally seems to view himself as a bit of a martyr.
Regarding the fat hate: I saw this a little bit in “This is Going to Hurt,” which I read earlier this summer. But Marsh at one point refers to bariatric patients as small whales. Like, what the fuck, dude? I appreciate wanting to tell a story where you aren’t always the hero, and to be honest to who you are, but when that honesty involves being hateful to a group of people — some of whom have been under your care in the past — you’re being pretty shitty.
Marsh also rails against administrative changes in the NHS. He screams at non-neurosurgeons who have the nerve to come into what they’ve been told would be a shared lounge space. He completely disregards and disrespects the idea that doctors maybe shouldn’t work a million hours a week. And he apparently doesn’t give a fuck about patient confidentiality — and is proud of that.
Some of the stories he tells are interesting, but as I got to know the version of the author that he chose to reveal to his reader, I found myself less and less interested in what he had to say. I know that arrogance and ego are often hallmarks of (good!) surgeons; I’m just not sold on the idea that they are hallmarks of good writers.