If you’re anything like me, you’re desperately searching for answers. You may also be looking for someone else who feels the same. Or looking for a medic that has already taken the leap and made it to the other side. Here are some books written by fellow doctors that are worth a read (for those questioning everything).
This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay (2017)
Out of all the books by medics that I’ve read, this is by far my favourite one. Ex-doctor Adam Kay retells his story of finishing medical school, his gruelling early years in the NHS and his obstetric and gynaecology training. Kay’s humour throughout it all reinforces the adage of “if you don’t laugh you’ll cry”. Told as diary entries, his final entry reveals why he quit and it’s amazing to see how successful he has become outside of medicine. A comedian and best selling author now, Adam Kay proves you can survive if you leave the medical world.
This is Going to Hurt is my number one choice because it is both hilarious, thought provoking, critical, and brutally honest.
Likening medicine as a dinner host who never lets you leave. He also describes the phenomenon of working to consultancy as “the 50 pound note you chase down the street, swept up by another gust of wind the millisecond before your hand makes contact”.
If you’re questioning your career in medicine, his book hits home, and speaks to all the truths you have kept deep down inside of you. That maybe you’re not even aware of yet.
Going Under by Sonia Henry (2019)
Going Under is a fictional book written by Australian Sonia Henry. Inspired by her years as a junior doctor, it is clear to everyone who knows, that this novel is more based on fact than fiction. Also at the top of my list because of the amazing sense of humour, and laugh out loud moments. Henry knows how to deal with difficult topics through comedy.
The fact that it’s fiction can leave the reader slightly removed from the horrors that are told, telling yourself that it didn’t really happen. But for everyone who has trained as a junior doctor, you know that the events in the book have happened. Maybe not to “Dr Kitty Holliday” and her friends, but to some medic out there.
Henry is now a GP and author, working around Australia. She did not leave medicine, but her novel is a great read for those who are struggling and need a catharsis. So that you can laugh and say “I’m not alone”.
The House of God by Samuel Shem (1978)
The House of God by Samuel Shem (a pseudonym by psychiatrist Stephen Bergman) is disturbing, dark, twisted, racist and sexist. It’s a satirical novel based on his experiences as an intern in Beth Israel Hospital (a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School).
You may wonder why it features in this list or why it’s so high up. As a female doctor the way Bergman portrays women as thoughtless ‘sexy nurses’ and objectifies them is abrasive. The one female doctor in the novel is Jo, who everyone hates and ridicules. There are black doctors, but they speak poor English and are mistaken as ‘the help’.
Bergman combines every type of bodily fluid, death and orgies in one page. It creates this surreal world that appears impossible to exist. I’m late to the party, having only discovered it this year, but this novel has sent shockwaves through the medical community since its publication in 1978.
With house rules such as “at a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse” and “the patient is the one with the disease”, Bergman’s humour also makes valid points.
The fact that I have kept it high up in my list is because of this raw honesty. The House of God is a fearless work that paved the way for discourse on medical ethics. Bringing to light the rates of junior doctor suicides, mental breakdowns, and the macabre side of medicine. Before this book, doctors were more idealised, and medicine seen as an almost super human profession.
Despite the troubling and outdated stereotypes, Bergman’s novel still rings true and does make you feel less alone. Someone else knew how hard it was to survive internship, and voiced it in his own sick way.
The book’s sexism and racism highlights the importance of being aware of these issues in medicine. We have come a long way, but we are not there yet. It’s still happening. It isn’t an ‘old issue’.
Emotional Female by Yumiko Kadota (2021)
I went into reading Emotional Female with high expectations. Finally, a book about medicine by a non-caucasian woman. Yumiko Kadota is an Australian ‘recovering doctor’ who was on path to become a plastic surgeon. Kadota was talented, hard working, an empath who truly cared about her patients. Her book is a memoir, starting from the very beginning. It chronicles her way through childhood, to medical school, to her early trainee years. After ruthless on call hours, Kadota ended up crashing her car, losing control of her bowels and hospitalised in a psychiatric ward. She then goes ‘Eat Pray Love’ style to Bali to recuperate.
This book touches on the issues of sexism and racism in medicine, which unfortunately do still exist. The reason why I have it placed here is because of the importance of knowing about the issues women and people of colour face in health care. Also of the brutal hours expected to work as a doctor, especially for aspiring surgeons.
I appreciate Yumiko’s bravery and courage in coming forward publicly with her difficult experiences.
Awareness is the first step in change, and I think Yumiko has done a lot to start discourse in the hardships all junior doctors face.
Kadota continues to assist in private surgeries and is now a body pump instructor.
Kill as Few Patients As Possible and Fifty-six Other Essays on How to be the World’s Best Doctor by Oscar London (1987)
Oscar London MD, WBD (World’s Best Doctor) is a pseudonym of a retired internist from California who collated 56 hilarious essays into this witty book. Both light hearted, truthful and insightful, London’s book is a quick read.
We don’t know the author behind the name, but it’s another example of someone who knows.
Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande (2002)
Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science is a well composed book by someone who is obviously a surgeon (and a bit male skewed). His writing precision mirrors his likely exactness when wielding a scalpel. Gawande’s book is one that is more like a case study. Not exactly a read for those who are looking for examples of doctors who have quit medicine disillusioned, but for those who want to question.
Complications is lower on my list because it is more about issues in medicine, rather than medics wanting to leave.
Gawande explores the taboo topic of medical errors, surgical complications, and diagnosis mysteries. At times a hard read for me, mainly because I am so close to the subject that it brings up painful emotions, but worth it.
I particularly respect the chapter on medical errors, and his take on the subject:
“The fact is that virtually everyone who cares for hospital patients will make serious mistakes, even commit acts of negligence, every year. For this reason, doctors are seldom outraged when the press reports yet another medical horror story. They usually have a different reaction: That could be me. The important question isn’t how to keep bad physicians from harming patients, it’s how to keep good physicians from harming patients.”