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Episode 333

Books Written by Doctors

09/08/14
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Posted by Mary Ann

I am in awe of doctors who write books. How do they have the time? And I must say, writing seems much more a right brain occupation – creative and divergent – and medicine seems more left brain, logical and deductive.

That having been said, there are a lot of doctors who have written books, both fiction and nonfiction. Here are a few: the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith, who created the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series that has brought so much pleasure to millions of people. Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner” and “And the Mountains Echoed,” a wonderful novelist who has appeared on Well Read (he has described his years as a doctor as something of an “arranged marriage”). And, last but not least, Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes and his physician sidekick, Dr. Watson.

Besides those well-known offerings, here are some other, including two by Carol Cassella. Both these books, like “Gemini,” interweave both the professional life of a physician and the personal complications caused by such a complicated, high-stakes job.

The main character in her 2008 book “Oxygen” is…guess what, an anesthesiologist, just like Carol Cassella! “Oxygen”’s heroine, Dr. Marie Heaton, is at the top of her profession, practicing in a Seattle hospital, when a routine surgery turns into a disaster. There’s an intriguing subplot – as the stress in her professional life approaches stratospheric levels, she also faces decisions on what to do about her aging father.

The plot of her 2010 book “Healer” sounds even more intriguing. In “Healer,” Claire, a woman who has trained as a doctor, decides to devote herself to her family in part because her husband, a biochemist, has discovered a simple blood test for ovarian cancer which has earned him a fortune. They become wealthy and circulate in the upper reaches of the Seattle elite; they even buy a ranch in eastern Washington that they have big plans for.

Then things fall apart. Her husband takes a financial risk on a new cancer treatment drug he hopes to develop, and when the lab tests go awry the family is in danger of losing everything. Claire and her daughter move to the dilapidated ranch house, and she takes a job at a rural public health clinic, a far cry from the circles of advanced medical practice she traveled in in Seattle. It’s a transforming experience for Claire.

I also need to mention some other splendid books by doctors:

“Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese. I mentioned this book in the context of a previous program because it’s about a couple of twins, and we hosted an author who had a memoir out about her relationship with her twin sister.

Verghese became famous for his nonfiction book, “My Own Country,” which recounted his experience as a doctor treating AIDS patients at a rural clinic in Mississippi. A physician and teacher at a medical school, he is a writer of great empathy, as well as life accomplishments.

“Cutting for Stone” tells the story of two twin brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone. They were conjoined at the head at birth, but separated; their mother was a nun who died from complications of her hidden pregnancy, and their father, a doctor, disappears from their lives. They are raised by two other doctors at the hospital in Addis Ababa where their parents worked. Both brothers grow up to be physicians; though they’re eerily close as children, they eventually go their separate ways but are reunited in a plot development having to do with their mysterious father.

This is a big, absorbing novel – some reviewers faulted it for having too much about medicine in it, but every single person I’ve ever talked to about it who has read it has loved it, including several doctors.

Another book I simply have to mention again, though I’ve mentioned it before in the context of a book about genes, is Siddhartha Mukherjee’s groundbreaking nonfiction book “The Emperor of All Maladies.”

This book, published in 2010, is a tour de force. Mukherjee is a cancer physician, but he’s also a sensitive and intelligent writer. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, it is a history of cancer, a chronicle of Mukherjee’s relationship with his patients and a very sophisticated look at where cancer treatment is headed.

The sections of this book devoted to gene therapy were a little challenging for me, but Mukherjee actually made me feel like I understood what was going on. Some cancers, like breast cancer, are definitely linked to genetic makeup. And a lot of promising cancer treatment is based on gene therapy, where scientists actually try to alter the genes of cancer cells in hopes of stopping their spread. It is a tribute to Mukherjee’s writing that I was actually able to understand his explanation of gene therapy, but don’t ask me to repeat any of it now.

Finally, I would like to briefly mention a nonfiction book, published in 2007, called “Better” by Atul Gawande. Gawande is both a surgeon and a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, but he is another doctor who has found time to write, and to write very well. Do these people sleep!? “Better” is a collection of essays that looks at medicine from many perspectives. They were previously published in the New Yorker, all looking at the question, as he says in the preface of, “what does it take to be good at something in which failure is so easy, so effortless?”

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