Doctor's Orders: Adam Kay Prescribes the Best Medical Reads
One thing I did rescue from the jaws of death was my training portfolio: the diaries from my years as a junior doctor. Among the funny and the mundane, the constant objects in orifices from patients with Eiffel Syndrome (‘I fell, doctor, I fell!’) and the petty bureaucracies, I was reminded of the brutal hours and the extreme, unreasonable things expected of me. I wouldn’t have flinched if an entry read ‘swam to Iceland for antenatal clinic’ or ‘had to eat a helicopter today’.
Whilst I was reliving this through my diaries, in the here and now doctors were coming under fire from politicians – being accused by our glorious leaders of all sorts of absurd things, from laziness to greed. Doctors were struggling to get their side of the story across, probably because they were at work the whole time, and it struck me that the public actually know very little about what it means to be a junior doctor. And so I decided to publish my diaries from my time in the NHS – verrucas and all – what it’s like working on the front line, the repercussions in my personal life, and how one terrible day it all became too much for me . . . (OOPS, SPOILER ALERT).
Other medical books
I’ve been asked to recommend five other medical books I’ve enjoyed, which feels like a terrible idea – surely I should be pretending my book is the only medical book available? Fine, whatever. You’ve probably all read the excellent Atul Gawande, Paul Kalanithi and Henry Marsh, so let’s wander slightly off the tarmac.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
This is the story of John Snow – not the newsreader, or the fictional sap on that kids’ show – but a doctor, who in 1854 set about to save the life of every Londoner by tracing the source of a deadly cholera epidemic. The story is cleverly told as a historical thriller, and tricks you into learning a shit-ton about bacteriology and epidemiology. Much better than I’ve made it sound.
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
This novel is the most accurate depiction of the NHS I’ve seen in any medium, and tells the story of 15-year-old Miriam and her family. Miriam goes into cardiac arrest one day at school and finds herself critically ill in a hospital High Dependency Unit. It’s a story about parenting, priorities, the frailty of life, and – more than anything – our poor overstretched NHS.
Gulp by Mary Roach
Gulp is a laugh-out-loud (and I really don’t laugh out loud very often) exploration of the human gut. It’s like a Bill Bryson travelogue: acutely observed, hugely informative and routinely hilarious. It’s also generally repulsive. I enjoyed it from mouth to anus.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cervical cancer. During her treatment, abnormal cells were taken at a biopsy that would turn out to be the most important cell-line in scientific history. HeLa cells – grown from her original biopsy - are what’s known as immortal cells, and have since been used in millions of scientific experiments, from finding the polio vaccine to research into cancer and AIDS. But the cells were taken without Henrietta’s permission. This is an extraordinary book: a tale of ethics, race and what is means to be human, as much as about medical science.
House of God by Samuel Shem
I suspect the reason everything in House of God rings so uncannily true is that it is true, and the book is less of a novel, more of a thinly-veiled retelling of the author’s own brutal experiences as a medical intern in the States. Darkly funny, with dozens of unforgettable moments, it’s the gold-standard of its genre, and should be required reading for anyone about to slap on a stethoscope and step onto the ward for the first time.