Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: Inside the Life of a Surgeon

When we get sick, we understandably focus inward—me, me, me. But what about the surgeon who may literally save our life? How has our illness affected her? What is it like facing death every day, sometimes beating it, sometimes not?

Understanding the life of this essential person on our healthcare team can help us see beyond ourselves and may help our attitudes and even affect our recovery.

That’s why I recommend A Few Small Moments by Carol Scott-Conner, MD, Ph.D., a breast surgeon and professor of surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

The premise of the book is that the truths by which we understand our lives usually come not in huge, dramatic thrusts, but in the day-to-day bits with which we weave our experiences with those of others. Scott-Conner makes this point in an engrossing series of interrelated short stories in which she comfortably shares the beauty, challenges, and rewards of the life of an academic surgeon—one moment at a time.

Scott-Conner says she has been often asked to write her autobiography but she felt more comfortable telling her story through the life of her fictional protagonist, Beth Abernathy, a surgical chair at a Midwestern university with parallels to Iowa—a flood that decimated the town, service to central Iowa, and a rural touch that includes skunks and coyotes as part of a normal day.

In A Few Small Moments, Beth struggles with administrative headaches, including shrinking budgets and growing needs; balancing a satisfying marriage with a grueling career; and dealing with those skunks and coyotes. Actually, the animals are displaced by flood waters, but Scott-Conner uses them as metaphors for Beth’s career—the coyote is just trying to find its way through challenging times and the skunks are a family in which the parents are guiding the young, the way an academic surgeon leads surgical residents.

Scott-Conner has created a character who is both highly professional and caring. Beth is pained when she has to tell a young woman that she has breast cancer, and she uses words such as “shadow” to describe the shape on the mammogram so she does not add to the woman’s fear with the more ominous terms “tumor” or “lump.” She is chagrined when another doctor suggests she move away from a patient’s bed before she discusses his health. She connects with her patients, while she knows that soon she will have to move on to still another illness, another sick person, another trauma. She writes:

Beth sometimes thought that being a doctor was like spending your life on the road, traveling from one strange place to another. A long slow trip across a continent. You stop in a town, meet all sorts of interesting people, then you move on. The difference was that Beth stayed in one place, the hospital, and the interesting people came to her. People drifted in and out of her life.

Beth’s life has significant parallels to Scott-Conner’s, “I think of Beth as my better half,” she says. Both are the same age—late 50s, with similar careers and job stresses. Both bike to work, have happy marriages, and cozy childhoods with high expectations. Scott-Conner’s husband is a model for Beth’s husband Jonathan. Beth, however, is a general surgeon whereas Scott-Conner is a breast surgeon.

In 1995 when Scott-Conner came to Iowa to chair the Department of Surgery, she became only the second woman in the country to lead a surgery department at an academic medical center. This came after an already remarkable career: She earned her undergraduate degree from MIT in electric engineering, where she was one of 35 women of a class of more than 900; she followed that with an M.D. from New York University, a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky, and an MBA from Millsap College.

In A Few Small Moments, she offers a full-bodied view of a doctor’s life, personalizing it by showing its stress without a trace of whine:

A big part of the art of being a surgeon is just being there for our patients; you drain pus, stop bleeding, remove things that have gone bad. Rotten appendixes, bad gallbladders, breast cancers. Stuff like that. Be strong for them. It’s work of my hands.

Scott-Conner says one motivation for writing the book was to encourage young women into the field. And, even though the stories are focused on the life of a woman surgeon, a male counterpart recently thanked her for telling his story.

The stories from A Few Small Moments have already been published before in literary journals such as Wisconsin Review, The North Dakota Quarterly and The Healing Muse. Scott-Conner has attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for more than 12 years and her work has been included in the group’s yearly anthology. She is the author of nine medical textbooks.

A Few Small Moments was published by Rachel Lord Press in 2011. It’s $14.99 from Amazon

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