Easy Reading for Physicians

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Many of today's physicians don't have a lot of interest in recreational reading unless they're heading for the airport and going to the beach. Here are eight medical fiction novels from old classics to new ones.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said he would ”read indiscriminately and all the time with his eyes hanging out.” He apparently didn’t think that gave him the right to recommend books to others (as we are now doing) because he once said, “Somebody’s boring me … I think it’s me!”

So although we might mention a favorite book to friends we would think twice about dumping it in their laps. Yet, we did find a way to mention the Swedish physician author Axel Munthe on Capri a year ago. And here we go again in the belief that retired seniors may have the time to find stories of interest even to busy physicians.

Fiction and Hollywood have moved on since the 1920s when popular authors like Lloyd C. Douglas could electrify the public with their novels. Douglas was born in 1877 and wrote his first novel in 1929 while he was a Lutheran minister (although his literary success soon allowed him to become a full-time author). His first novel, Magnificent Obsession, “a bit preachy by today’s standards,” was nevertheless a huge success.

In the film version (which differs from the novel) a selfish rich playboy has an accident that requires the town’s resuscitator be utilized for him when the beloved country doctor is having a heart attack at the same time elsewhere. The playboy, confronting the doctor’s blind wife, now widow, decides to go to medical school to become a surgeon and restore her sight. The pretty boy playboy (played by Rock Hudson) made a doctor’s training seem easy.

A decade later, Douglas’s 1939 novel, Disputed Passage, shows the medical student’s life in the 1930s; it’s is an entertaining read for anyone who has gone through the grind of medical school. It had impact: A hardcover first edition is on sale at Amazon.com for about $79, but it can be read online free in its entirety at Project Gutenberg Australia if you click here.

A physician-author who has suddenly come on the scene is Abraham Verghese, the fascinating individual who mines his own medical training for the fictional Cutting For Stone. I have read, somewhere, that the mostly absent father in the story, Thomas Stone, MD, was based on a famous British surgeon and text book author Hamilton Bailey — whose books I recall from med school.

I thought this novel was terrific even though the New York Times suggested “Verghese was a writer with too much heart.” Verghese is an interesting writer who has been critical of American medical school training and his statement in our medical journals that today’s students don’t even know how to perform a complete physical exam was noticed in academe and got him a position as a professor of medicine at Stanford School of Medicine.

Another book of medical interest based on solid research written as a novel is Moloka’i. It was written by Alan Brennert about how leprosy was treated in our lifetime by quarantining those afflicted with the disease. They were taken as children away from their Hawaiian families and carried off to windswept Moloka’i.

Brennert is also a screenwriter and TV producer and he won an Emmy for his work on LA Law. His novel, written in 2003, shows what life was like in the days after Father Damien; it nails the inflexible and cruel behavior of the church towards those with Hansen’s disease and shows how families were ashamed of their members who became ill with the disease.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist, has published the definitive book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. It is a mix of science and personal story telling about his patients at the Dana-Farber Cancer institute in Boston in 2003. The New York Times calls his book “powerful and ambitious.” It’s also absorbing — it won the Pulitzer Prize. It might help for readers to have a medical degree but many of those who have been captivated have just been persons whose lives or families have been touched by this dreadful disease.

The family of Henrietta Lacks feels it was more than touched — it was exploited. In Rebecca Skoot’s 2010 story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the clinical events in the life and death of a woman with a uterine malignancy unfold revealing the style (if that’s the right word) of medical research in the 1950s and how poor black tobacco farmers lived in run-down areas in rural Virginia at that time. The book is passionately written by a journalist-school teacher driven to write her story even as she was forced to max out her personal credit cards to fund her heartbreaking research.

Many of today’s physicians don’t have a lot of interest in recreational reading unless they’re heading for the airport and going to the beach. Like driving to the movies, they read to escape. Nevertheless, if they want some realism in their medical fiction, they can embrace the first book by ophthalmologist Robin Cook, a Columbia graduate whose Coma was a sensational success as both a novel and a film. Cook has written about 30 books, work that has sold nearly 100 million copies. He seeks to educate the public about health issues as well as entertain them. The movie Coma was directed by fellow physician-writer the late Michael Crichton.

Crichton had an incredible career behind him when he died in 2008. A Harvard Renaissance Man, he taught anthropology at Cambridge University in England and writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His first novel, The Andromeda Strain, was written when he was a medical student. Like 12 others of his books it created a great movie. Jurassic Park and his TV series ER made him a household name. He has sold more than 200 million books.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.