BY MARILYN MCENTYRE
Married to her favorite classmate in her final year of medical school, Michelle Au finds herself pregnant a year into residency — one of the most physically demanding stages in a doctor’s life. She and her husband, also a newly minted MD, sometimes go for days on different shifts, arranging brief visits at the subway entrance as they pass, one heading to work, one heading home. After a year in pediatrics, she embarks on what will become her specialty—anaesthesiology—not long before her due date.
“I try not to call attention to the fact that I am nine months pregnant,” she writes, “but even in baggy scrubs, that fact is a little difficult to hide” (187). New to the field, she is again at the bottom of a professional totem pole, and acutely aware of the need to prove her commitment even as she prepares for an early maternity leave.
Hospital dramas and doctor stories have enjoyed a wide public for decades, and with good reason: we all have some stake in imagining the lives of those who may be caring for us in the worst of times. And medicine is easy to romanticize. Though few doctors are likely to solve as many medical mysteries as “House” or encounter as many crises as the team on “Grey’s Anatomy,” there is suspense in surgery and real heroism in the work of quick response teams. Even in the most routine encounters with patients, Dr. Au enables us to see what might motivate a young person to spend grueling hours in windowless rooms setting aside all personal concerns and standing in awkward postures to watch a sleeping patient breathe.
Story by story Michelle Au, now attending physician of anaesthesiology at a hospital in Atlanta, offers readers a behind-the-scenes tour of medical life in a heavily trafficked New York hospital. Once a humor columnist and a veteran blogger, she has a quick eye for comedy and a wry wit that must at times have helped her get through the daunting responsibilities that come with the white coat. The emotional complexity of her work gets full weight in these stories — the acute disappointment of watching a 36-year-old woman die of a stroke when she thought she had pulled her through; the wistfulness and guilt of leaving her baby in someone else’s arms while she rushes to the bedside of someone else’s child; the barely veiled frustration of dealing with parents who think head lice is a medical emergency. Though they provide a certain comic relief, dealing with laughably minor complaints like lice or sniffles in a big-city ER, feels, she observes “like watering flowers in a war zone” (151).
These memories of medical training and early motherhood offer readers a valuable view of a profession that is often misrepresented — caricatured or commercialized by mass media, or vilified by patients whose real frustrations may lie with the red tape doctors may find equally frustrating. An engaging writer who knows how to entertain, she is also a young mom on a learning curve, a wife who has negotiated a complicated partnership with a professional peer, and a caregiver who has learned how much of compassion depends on sustained awareness that every patient has a story in which she is offered a small supporting role, sometimes at a critical moment. As a young Asian American wife and mother she knows she still challenges stereotypes and cracks a few conventions. She likes that. She likes being a doctor. And after the eight-chapter journey through her formative years, readers will very likely find themselves amused, surprised, touched, and grateful — and wishing for more.