Dr. Pauline Chen is a transplant surgeon and hence highly trained in the surgical care of desperately ill patients. She found, however, that although she had intensive and first rate training, time and again the message she received from her mentors and peers encouraged a distance from frank discussions about dying with patients who were clearly dying. Dr. Chen successfully suppressed her urges to reflect on the meaning of illness and death. Years into her training, she finally witnessed an attending surgeon stay with a patient and the patient's wife until the patient passed away. The widow sent a thank you note to Dr. Chen for allowing a "dignified and peaceful death." (p. 101) Chen notes that observing her attending stand with the patient during death changed her profoundly: "...from that moment on, I would believe that I could do something more than cure. This narrative, then, is my acknowledgment to him." (p. 101)

Final Exam chronicles Chen's journey from medical student to attending surgeon and examines her experiences with death and serious illness - of patients, family members, friends. The memoir contains three parts: Principles, Practice, and Reappraisal - each with three chapters. The book is chronologically arranged, beginning with anatomy dissection at the start of medical school and ending with Chen as an attending arranging for hospice, thus honoring a patient's desire to die at home rather than in hospital. Chen skillfully weaves her stories around commentary on the social, cultural and philosophical issues surrounding death and the medical response to death. An introduction and epilogue bookend the text and 46 pages of extensive notes and bibliography complete the book.

Although Chen claims to have slowly and painfully awakened to the fact that patient needs extend well beyond good technical care, in fact one sees Chen emerge as a caring physician even from her initial patient contacts in medical school. Chen speaks more to her role as an Asian-American than to being a woman in a male-dominated field, but she clearly has what it takes to succeed in this extremely competitive field, including a good dose of compulsiveness and an incredible work ethic.


This thoughtful, well written treatise and memoir would be of interest to anyone contemplating a career in medicine, to those already in medicine, to people with end-of-life interests and to readers who want a true insider look at medical/surgical training and practice. The bibliographic materials are also helpful to those seeking to delve further into medical humanities, particularly the culture of medicine and end-of-life care.



Place Published

New York



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