A British physician-writer reflects on her topsy-turvy medical training emphasizing the mental and emotional burden of becoming a doctor. In 22 brief chapters with titles including "The Darkest Hour," "Buried," and "The Wrong Kind of Kindness," a struggle between hope and despair furiously plays out - in patients, hospital staff, and the narrator.
Dr. Jo (as one patient calls her) remembers interviewing for medical school admission, the difficulty dissecting a cadaver, starting lots of IV's, dutifully toting an almost always buzzing pager, and breaking bad news. She shares with readers her own serious car accident with resulting facial injuries. She comments on the underfunded UK National Health Service (NHS) that is "held together by the goodwill of those who work within it, but even then it will fracture" (p104).
Anecdotes of memorable encounters are scattered throughout the narrative: a fortyish woman in the emergency department who describes a fast pulse and sense of impending doom diagnosed as having an anxiety attack who ten minutes later suffers a cardiac arrest, a man with severe schizophrenia, a suicide, an elderly blind person, a young woman with metastatic breast cancer.
But the lessons that have stuck with her are primarily dark and somber ones. "Sacrifice and the surrender of the self are woven into the job" (p77). She realizes that "perhaps not all good doctors are good people" (p125) and that as wonderful and essential as the virtue of compassion is, "compassion will eat away at your sanity" (p16). She chooses psychiatry as a specialty where kindness, empathy, creating trust with patients, and careful listening work wonders for people. "I learned that saving a life often has nothing to do with a scalpel or a defibrillator" (pp13-14).