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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beautiful Writing About Complicated Things

      I've been studying the work of Atul Gawande this week. Very interesting guy. He's an MD, a surgeon actually, looks young and handsome. Coincidentally, he is primarily a cancer surgeon and he practices at the same hospital where my husband died an unnecessarily agonizing cancer death. I'm fairly certain though that our paths have never crossed. Dr. Gawande was the child of two doctors and he didn't want to become one himself, but he did. He is more well known, I think, as a writer. His essays on health care and medicine have been popular in The New Yorker for more than a decade, and he has written several books, many award winning. The one we've been reading this week for my class in Narrating Illness, is called Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science. It is actually a terrifying read for those of us on the soft side of the surgeon's scalpel, but it is honest. Well written and brave. That's all I think we should ask of a writer, and he delivers it, far more than most writers ever do. I found it interesting, in researching the man, that he keeps a copy of Sylvia Plath's poem about a surgeon (see below) on his desk, and of it he said; "Most writing about people in medicine casts them as either heroes or villians. That poem captures the surgeon as a merely human, slightly bewildered, a little bit benighted person in a world that is ultimately beyond his control." (Harvard Magazine, Fall 2009)
     For a quick taste of his work here is what he wrote about the historical events in Washington, DC this week which he and his son witnessed;
     I haven't yet read, but have researched, his current book, A Checklist Manifesto, which is as important as any book that has come along in decades, and in just this one manuscript, Dr. Gawande will do enormous good for his fellow man. More good than he can even as a gifted surgeon. Proof positve that the pen is mightier than the sword. Though I want him to keep writing I honestly hope, that should cancer ever strike my family again, that our paths actually do cross.

The Surgeon at 2 A.M.

The white light is artificial, and hygienic as heaven.
The microbes cannot survive it.
They are departing in their transparent garments, turned aside
From the scalpels and the rubber hands.
The scalded sheet is a snowfield, frozen and peaceful.
The body under it is in my hands.
As usual there is no face. A lump of Chinese white
With seven holes thumbed in. The soul is another light.
I have not seen it; it does not fly up.
Tonight it has receded like a ship's light.
It is a garden I have to do with --- tubers and fruit
Oozing their jammy substances,
A mat of roots. My assistants hook them back.
Stenches and colors assail me.This is the lung-tree.These orchids are splendid.
They spot and coil like snakes.
The heart is a red bell-bloom, in distress.
I am so small
In comparison to these organs!
I worm and hack in a purple wilderness.
The blood is a sunset. I admire it.
I am up to my elbows in it, red and squeaking.
Still is seeps me up, it is not exhausted.
So magical! A hot spring
I must seal off and let fill
The intricate, blue piping under this pale marble.
How I admire the Romans ---
Aqeducts, the Baths of Caracella, the eagle nose!
The body is a Roman thing.
It has shut its mouth on the stone pill of repose.
It is a statue the orderlies are wheeling off.
I have perfected it.
I am left with an arm or a leg,
A set of teeth, or stones
To rattle in a bottle and take home,
And tissues in slices--a pathological salami.
Tonight the parts are entombed in an icebox.
Tomorrow they will swim
In vinegar like saints' relics.
Tomorrow the patient will have a clean, pink plastic limb.
Over one bed in the ward, a small blue light
Announces a new soul. The bed is blue.
Tonight, for this person, blue is a beautiful color.
The angels of morphia have borne him up.
He floats an inch from the ceiling,
Smelling the dawn drafts.
I walk among sleepers in gauze sarcophagi.
The red night lights are flat moons. They are dull with blood.
I am the sun, in my white coat,
Grey faces, shuttered by drugs, follow me like flowers.

Sylvia Plath


  1. I cannot wait to read Checklist. Quality pathways hinge on small but critical points and moments. I did not know you lost your husband in that way. My deepest condolences. Witnessing a wasting away and fading of light in someone you love is close-up rock and back and forth stuff, followed by getting up and going on.

  2. Yup, you nailed that quite beautifully. You are an illness narrator too! Lets have a sit down after we both read Checklist. Did you see his interview on it with Jon Stewart? Its on Youtube. I have alittle crush on him now I think.

  3. I'm reading Checklist now -- it is great writing about complicated things, just the way that checklists can guide us through complicated tasks with fewer (or no) errors. Now I want to read his other books too.


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