In 28 autobiographical stories, the narrator writes of his patient encounters (and self encounters) as a medical student, resident, and finally Emergency Room attending physician. "The Unknown Assailant" opens the collection, a tale of a criminal and his victim who are both brought into the doctor-narrator's emergency room. The young doctor chooses "the young one" (p. 1), not knowing he is the assailant, and works frantically to save his life. This criminal allegedly killed two men a year before, but his current victim lives and the doctor learns the story of the attack from this victim's point of view. The assailant, who slowly recovers, has "an aura about him" (p. 5) and the doctor is strangely drawn to him, thankful that this man means him no harm. Perhaps aware of the irony of healing a man who, in another environment, might kill him, the doctor helps the assailant get better.

This underlying theme--that nothing is black and white in medicine or life--shapes every story. "Prelude," is the revealing, three-page tale of a medical student's life outside the hospital juxtaposed with his first encounter with death in the anatomy lab.

Every story deals with significant issues: the physician's inner emptiness when a patient dies ("Through the Dark, Softly"), how a greater power might suddenly intervene ("Faith"), how narrow the margin is between a successful and a missed diagnosis ("Sugar"), how both patients and residents survive because of, or in spite of, their medical attendings ("A Difference of Opinion"), and how things that seem final or sinister--like death and leeches--become instruments of hope and cure ("The Dead Lake"). [Sugar and The Dead Lake have been annotated in this database.)


In spare, precise language, the narrator utilizes both common and extraordinary moments to relate not only the drama of medical and life events, but also his own wonder and resiliency as a practitioner. The stories function almost as poems: central metaphors carry the heft of the message; the author never stoops to sentimentality or tells the reader what to feel; and most stories have last lines or paragraphs that both surprise and elevate the story from the personal to the universal.

The stories need not be read or studied in order, although the first and final entries serve as parenthesis for the stories between. In the last, "Time," we meet the physician as he is--human, observant, filled with dread and awe, thirty--two years old. Medical students, physicians, nurses--anyone who works in healthcare--might find that these stories serve as clarifying mirrors, reflecting back to them the terrible and wonderful epiphanies of their own experiences in medicine.


Frank Huyler currently practices Emergency Medicine in Albequerque, New Mexico.


Univ. of California Press

Place Published

Los Angeles



Page Count