John F. Murray

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Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Journal


In this journal, Murray traces a month-long rotation he spends as attending physician in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) of San Francisco General Hospital. For each of the 28 days, Murray presents the patients he sees, both new and ongoing, along with commentary on the care of each patient and on broader issues raised by their cases.

In the course of the month, we encounter sixty patients, fifteen of whom die in the ICU. The patients are apparently quite typical for the hospital: cases are dominated by HIV, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and drug abuse, or all four. The ICU is not a very safe place: there are twelve cases of iatrogenic pulmonary edema, and several of hospital-acquired infections.

Murray candidly presents both the triumphs and the limitations of contemporary intensive care while giving us vivid glimpses into the lives of both patients and staff. In his epilogue, Murray asks some tough questions about the value of intensive care units, and discusses palliative care, patients' rights to the withholding and withdrawing of life-sustaining therapy, and even physician-assisted suicide, as "more humane"--and economically responsible--alternatives to intensive care in cases of advanced terminal illness (270).

He describes the ICU as a "battleground" where people who are "clinging to life" can "fight for it" (275). This is its value. But the battles need to be better understood and winning must be carefully evaluated. Murray concludes that the last few decades' medical and technical advances in critical care now need to be matched by ethical ones.

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