For those of us on the outside of the medical world—who really only interact with it as patients—there’s something mystical and powerful and a little frightening about its practitioners. It’s hard to conceptualize for those of us who haven’t ever had that kind of knowledge. Their skills seem almost magical, for better or worse. For those readers who have spent time in hospitals and are all too familiar with the business ends of medical instruments, there’s an even more complex relationship to medicine. And for those of us who have not experienced either in any significant way, the whole field can be shrouded in mystery. Regardless of your position in relation to the subject matter, this list of medical memoirs will have a perspective with which you can engage.
Gabriel Brownstein was born with the tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect that in 1966 (the year of his birth), doctors were just learning to operate on. This memoir tells the story of Brownstein's experiences as he frequently undergoes new procedures to save and extend his life. The second aspect of the book tells of medicine's history, its innovation, and the people who kept the author alive. If you're interested in the developing technologies of medicine and how it affects the people who interact with it, this medical memoir is the one for you.
Though we as a culture would like to believe that women are treated as equals, when Abby Norman dropped 40 pounds, went gray at the temples, and was repeatedly hospitalized for excruciating pain, she was consistently diagnosed as having a urinary tract infection and then discharged with antibiotics. This protagonist takes matters into her own hands and tries to learn about her condition, and her ultimate goal, as the subtitle states, is to "make doctors believe in women's pain."
Daniela Lamas is a critical care doctor, which means she treats patients at their sickest. This medical memoir follows patients in the days, weeks, months, or years after they receive the treatment that allows them that extra time. Her memoir seeks to answer the question: What do survivors do with their time when they know it's coming to an end?
This autobiography tells the underdog story of an Indian immigrant who came to America in 1967. He has now performed over 15,000 surgeries, which is more than nearly anyone alive. This book talks not only about medicine and education, but about immigrating to America during that time, overcoming classism, racism, and the obstacles of a major hand injury. It's a truly uplifting story.
Cardiac surgeon Stephen Westaby writes about what it's like to face death down on a daily basis, and though he was shocked the first time a patient died on the table and the other surgeons walked calmly away, this book illustrates how that kind of detachment preserves the self. His book, however, is written with utmost compassion when reflecting on his 11,000 surgeries.
This memoir recounts Mike Scardino's life as an ambulance attendant in New York City in the late 1960s. Throughout it, we meet unforgettable characters and watch uncomfortable, unsettling situations unfold in the historical context of race riots, plane crashes, and personal lives. He tells all of the medical drama with a macabre sense of humor.
In this memoir, 36-year-old neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. He was writing through the experience when he died from it in 2015, and some of the questions that he begins to answer in its pages include: “What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away?” The book is both inspiring and realistic, concrete in its dilemmas and moving for the reader.
This medical memoir is all about cancer, and in particular, how we have lost the war against it. In this book, Raza attacks the concept from every different angle: medical, scientific, cultural, and personal. She even talks about the unbearable role of being her husband's oncologist as he battled leukemia. Like When Breath Becomes Air, this book is as much about philosophy and psychology as it is about medicine.
Atul Gawande explores the imperfect science of surgery in these 14 essays. As a surgeon himself, he tells the stories of his personal experience, but more than that, he states that nearly always, doctors are presented as either heroes or villains. In this book, he shows that they are people despite that they can sometimes do heroic things, that surgery is complicated, decisions are complex, and there is no sure treatment for anything. This book provides new perspectives to those who are not in the medical field, and it provides validation to those who are.
Similar to Complications, Caroline Elton's memoir illuminates the emotional wear on physicians whom she has counseled. Her occupation as a vocational psychologist provides her with the material that funds this book, and her main goal is to illustrate the humanity that doctor's experience, from work/life pressure to mortality and other personal problems.
Anyone who loves reading about medicine, whether it’s from the perspective of the practitioners or the patients, should take a look at this list of medical memoirs. There’s bound to be something special for you here.
Mary Kay McBrayer is a horror enthusiast, sideshow lover, and prose writer from south of Atlanta. Her true crime novel, America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster is available for pre-order, and you can hear her analysis (and jokes) about scary movies on the podcast, Everything Trying to Kill You. You can read her tweets @mkmcbrayer.