When young, the greatest of challenges seem within reach – we are never more than one step behind the goal, always getting closer to where we think we need to be. We are full of hope and energy, and we are ready to take anything life puts in our way.
In the world of medicine, and especially the world of medicine of the 1980s, the greatest of challenges was neurosurgery – the peak of what you can be as a doctor. In a world without medical imaging and where the surgical knife still ruled the operating world, neurosurgery was what all ambitious medical students wanted to become. It was, and is, probably the most difficult specialty one can master, so having a glimpse of what that world is can be truly mesmerising.
Frank Vertosick Jr. brings to life that world – the ambitions of a young medical student, eager to learn and to overcome life’s obstacles by proving himself one of the best. But to become one of the best one has to pass a great series of challenges – to cut a persons head open and start exploring with scalpel in hand is not something anybody can just get up and do. There are rules, and practice always proves itself to be more complicated than the textbook you just read, even reread. Mistakes will be made, and the horror of those mistakes can break a person. The long shifts where the hospital not only becomes your home – or your second home – it becomes everything you know. With each passing day you are wiser, but more numb – there is a breaking point to this story and if you are not careful it may break you to the point you can never pull yourself back together – most doctors will suffer from depression, and others will become sociopaths – not able to distinguish the body from the mind.
Written in a beautiful and simple style, the memoirs of the the young neurosurgery resident brings to life our human nature and how fragile, and yet how strong, we truly are. The moment where saving someones life becomes more than a job, it becomes a mission that one cannot fail; a duty one owes to oneself and to the world.
Stories about colleagues and patients, and of hospitals and residencies, intertwine and give us a lecture on how to tackle life – no one is perfect, becoming the best is a long road where every mistake is a lesson we need to learn from. The story of our bodies and our diseases might not define us, but we carry it with us always, never able to run away from it as it follows us everywhere; and when the story leads to catastrophe we rely on other people for our safety and recovery, and hearing the story of how these people came to become our saviours can be truly fascinating.
The life of a doctor seen from within is astonishing, from the years of medical school to residency and to one’s own practice – years and years of studying and practising with only one goal in mind – helping people.