Economical vignettes follow a doctor’s interior life as he goes about the business of diagnosing.
California-based Watts, a regular NPR commentator, has taken the world of gastroenterology, with its scopes and intestines and tests no one wants to take, and teased out the essential truths at its heart. He may have his medical degree, but he has also long been a poet, and here the doctor presents accounts of his work and his patients that summon up all the awe and wonder that still characterize the field of medicine. Most concerned with the interaction between patient and doctor, Watts considers the things that people say and don’t say, what they worry about and what concerns him, as their physician. He recalls the time he calmed a patient by reciting one of his own poems, and helped another simply by listening to her talk about her daughter. He gives a very short, stunningly effective account of a tracheotomy patient who, while fully conscious, is suffocated through a nurse’s carelessness. Recounting the first time he sutured a wound, Watts gives equal time to the mechanics of sewing and the fact that the patient won’t file charges against his assailant. Equally stirring are the doctor’s accounts of dealing with managed care; he distills his interactions with the pencil-pushers to their maddening essence, requiring just a few pages to leave the reader incensed at the pettiness and lunacy of today’s health insurance industry. While Watts can occasionally lean too heavily toward the sentimental, the work as a whole is balanced. But a caveat for hypochondriacs: Reading this may produce a whole new set of anxieties. Since life and death are waiting every time a doctor goes into the office, some of Watts’s accounts are about people who didn’t make it.
Undeniably compelling, but chilling for those who are even somewhat expect the worst.