Body of work: A trio of compelling medical memoirs reviewed
Stories from medical professionals are abound in these three impressive books
The Language Of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story
Christie Watson (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)
There have been some fine, thought-provoking books by doctors in recent years but it’s high time the nurse’s story was told, too.
And how magnificently Christie Watson tells it in this remarkable, unforgettable memoir of her 20-year career as a registered nurse.
The Language Of Kindness has the same brutal frankness about the demands of the medical profession as Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt.
But this book also takes the temperature of our society, asking searching questions about the human qualities we should value most.
Christie Watson is the author of the 2011 Costa First Novel winner Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, so you might expect her first non-fiction book to be beautifully written and so it is.
But this page-turning account of how nurses routinely dig deep into their souls to dispense care and compassion in increasingly challenging conditions also packs a massive emotional punch.
Nurses get a voice with The Language of kindness
Boasting a memorable cast of characters and laced with absurdity and humour as well as tragedy, the narrative takes us from birth to death, beginning with the writer’s own “birth” as a nurse when still a rebellious teenager of 17, through her life-changing experiences working with babies and children (paediatric intensive care was for many years her specialism) and caring for the elderly.
It begins routinely enough as Christie captures the morning scene in a big London hospital as she arrives for work.
You’ll laugh as she mistakes a takeaway delivery man for a doctor. You’ll cry as she provides some dying comfort to Jasmin, a little girl fatally burned in a house fire, by washing her smoke-filled hair.
And as you read, chances are you’ll become increasingly angry about how a profession as essential as nursing can be so undervalued in our so-called civilised world.
Dedicated simply “To Nurses”, The Language Of Kindness is already a publishing sensation with rights sold all over the world and a TV drama in the works from the producers of Poldark and Victoria.
It’s not hard to see why. As Christie Watson forges relationships with all kinds of patients, the book builds into a remarkable reflection on care, empathy and compassion.
At a time when our National Health Service, too, is chronically sick, she reminds us fiercely, “We are all nursed at some point in our lives. We are all nurses.”
This intense truth is never more powerful than in the chapter entitled And So We Beat On, where she sits by her father’s bedside, freed by the care of an amazing Marie Curie nurse to keep vigil over him and speak final words of love before he succumbs to terminal cancer.
At this moment, everything else falls away as the author reminds us that, sooner or later in all our lives, nothing else will matter but the language of kindness.
Christie Watson also speaks to the amazing demeanour of Marie Curie nurses
Shapeshifters: On Medicine & Human Change
Gavin Francis (Profile, £16.99)
“To be alive is to be in perpetual metamorphosis: growing, healing, learning, ageing.”
Ever since he was an 18-year-old medical student, GP Gavin Francis has been fascinated by the ever-shifting nature of our minds and bodies which, like the external world, have seasons all of their own.
His sense of wonder has inspired this enthralling collection of illustrated pieces about human transformation.
Rooted in case histories from his own general practice, Gavin Francis’s deeply humane stories blend history, art, literature, myth and magic as he examines such eclectic subjects as the possible origin of werewolves, the growth of human horns, the art of tattoos, the agony of anorexia, the trials of puberty and menopause, gender transition, castration and more.
And whether he’s writing about setting the bones of an eight-year-old boy in the Gambia or counselling a man who is abusing anabolic steroids, Dr Francis will leave you marvelling at the physical self you carry around with you every day.
The Human Kind: A Doctor’s Stories From The Heart of Medicine
Peter Dorward (Green Tree, £16.99)
This wise and illuminating collection of case histories by another GP examines the many ethical dilemmas that doctors face every single day and is admirably honest about why medics sometimes get the diagnosis and treatment of patients wrong.
Diving straight in on the question of whether terminally ill patients have the right to die, Peter Dorward also grapples with critical matters such as the best way to break bad news, at which point you decide to deprive a mentally ill patient of their freedom, how to deal with heroin addicts, the psychology of pain and whether we are over-prescribing painkillers and antidepressants (short answer, yes).
This is also a compelling and beautifully written account of learning to be a doctor, from the author’s early days as a GP (when he often feels like a “stone falling down a well”) to his becoming an experienced clinician who can diagnose a patient within minutes.
But every day brings a new challenge, so Peter Dorward’s reflections upon how doctors dispense practical compassion to every patient, however difficult, frightening or unpleasant they may be, is perhaps the most profound of all.
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