Selzer tells four stories of surgical loss: a surprise loss on the operating table, the drowning of a sick child in a flood in wartime Korea, the sudden death of a professor due to a perforated ulcer, and the loss of some facial mobility in a young woman following the removal of a tumor in her cheek. As we move from one vignette to the next, the narrator's mood goes from despair to accepting to redeemed, with various forms of love the agent.


The four parts of this metaphysical and richly literary essay might represent the stages of a surgeon's learning how to deal with losses. In the first, everything is his fault. In the second, the raging flood that sweeps his patient away takes some of the blame. In the third, the patient dies, but that dying is redeemed by the loving attentions of a nurse who in Selzer's vision becomes "[the patient's] wife in his new life of dying."

In the final story, the young woman's husband tells him he likes her new, slightly crooked mouth and kisses it, taking care to meet her lips in their new configuration. Selzer elevates the husband to god-like status for this curative action and steps back in deference: "I remember that the gods appeared in ancient Greece as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in."

Selzer ends with a moving short passage about his own hard winning of the possibility of redemption. This piece would make an excellent beginning to a discussion of physician guilt.

Primary Source

Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery


Simon & Schuster

Place Published

New York



Page Count