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Doctor's Orders: Adam Kay Prescribes the Best Medical Reads

Posted on 21st September 2017 by Martha Greengrass
Ripping off the sticking plaster to reveal the gory truth beneath, former doctor turned comedian Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt is a hilarious, no holds barred account of six years on the front line of the NHS. Here he introduces readers to what life is really like for a junior doctor and recommends his favourite medical reads.
In 2010, after six years of training and a further six years on the wards, I resigned from my job as a junior doctor. My parents still haven’t forgiven me. Last year, the General Medical Council wrote to me to say they were taking my name off the medical register, which was not really a huge shock as I hadn’t seen a single patient in half a decade. But it gave me a chance to clear out my spare room, and I cleared out box after box of old paperwork.
 
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.

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A riveting historical medical mystery, Johnson’s page-turning account of London’s Victorian cholera epidemic is a scintillating slice of narrative non-fiction. Focusing on the pioneering work of two medics in defeating the disease, The Ghost Map presents an enthralling picture of innovation and the triumph of research over superstition.
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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.

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The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence.
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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.

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From mastication to defecation, Mary Roach takes a sideways look at how humans eat in this riveting, side-splittingly funny study. Through interviews with everyone from spit connoisseurs to enema exorcists, Gulp paints a vivid, eye-opening and, occasionally, gut-churning picture of digestion.
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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.   

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The internationally bestselling story of a young woman whose death in 1951 changed medical science for ever . . .

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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.

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The medical hierarchy of "The House of God" is like a pyramid - a lot at the bottom and one at the top. Roy Basch, a Rhodes scholar, thinks differently, until he meets Hyper Hooper, out to win the most post-mortems of the year award, or Molly, the nurse with the crash helmet.
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