Henry Marsh

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


A bicycling, bee-keeping, British neurosurgeon approaching the end of his professional career recalls some distinctive patients, surgical triumphs as well as notable failures, difficult decisions, and mistakes. Nearly thirty years of a busy neurosurgical practice are distilled into a collection of linked stories throbbing with drama - both the flamboyant kind and the softly simmering type.

Most chapters are titled after a medical condition (exceptions are "Hubris" and "Melodrama"). Some of the headings are familiar - Trauma, Infarct, Aneurysm, Meningioma. Other chapter titles flaunt delicious medical terminology that mingles the mysterious and the poetic with nomenclature such as Angor animi, Neurotmesis, Photopsia, and Anaesthesia dolorosa.

Included are riveting accounts of both mundane and seemingly miraculous patient outcomes. One success story involves a pregnant woman losing her sight due to a brain tumor that compresses the optic nerves. Her vision is restored with an operation performed by the author. Her baby is born healthy too. But tales of failure and loss - malignant glioblastomas that are invulnerable to any treatment, operative calamities including bleeding of the brain, paralysis, and stroke - are tragically common. The author describes his humanitarian work in the Ukraine. He admits his aggravation with hospital bureaucracy and is frequently frustrated by England's National Health Service.

Sometimes the shoe falls on the other foot, and the doctor learns what it is to be a patient. He suffers a retinal detachment. He falls down some stairs and fractures his leg. His mother succumbs to metastatic breast cancer. His three month old son requires surgery for a benign brain tumor.

As his career winds down, the author grows increasingly philosophical. He acknowledges his diminishing professional detachment, his fading fear of failure, and his less-hardened self. He becomes a sort of vessel for patients to empty their misery into. He is cognizant of the painful privilege it is to be a doctor.

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