A former surgeon for the New York City Police Department recounts his life from his Long Beach, New York, childhood to 9/11.
“This is not your ordinary biography of a doctor,” says debut author Fried in his introduction, and, indeed, his life is an extraordinary one. Once a smart, chubby kid interested in photography and working for the family’s used-furniture store, he later became a mildly anti-social medical student and, finally, a fledgling surgeon. He took part in a program that whittled 40 interns down to eight chief residents over five years, which made sleep a stranger to him and his home life an afterthought. As a surgeon, he encountered death and dismemberment on a daily basis—at one point, the memoir blurs into a series of capsule case studies that aren’t for the squeamish. He also dealt with the monotony of checking new police recruits for hernias and hemorrhoids. Interspersed are tales of egomaniacal, money-obsessed colleagues; the sometimes-stodgy machinations of bureaucracies; a stint reviewing malpractice suits; a mysterious police detective known only as “Trenchcoat”; and the author’s struggle to balance a demanding, stressful career with the needs of a young family. It’s a tremendous amount of life to pack into a few hundred pages, but Fried’s writing is cleareyed and no-nonsense throughout, which is fitting for someone whose profession doesn’t allow do-overs. As a result, the author’s prose can appear somewhat detached at times—he sketches his youthful years without sentiment, and his younger brother merits little more than a paragraph—but Fried admits that years of surgical training taught him to keep his emotions under control. This ultimately helps the book, as it would likely be a grueling read, otherwise; when Fried does go into deeply personal experiences, such as his near-fatal struggle with hepatitis B or his frankly terrifying time at the World Trade Center site during 9/11, they’re more evocative because of the contrast. Elsewhere, the author’s bone-dry sense of humor helps put even horrific situations into perspective. Overall, he remains an optimistic presence in a life story that could have been a litany of tragedy.
A sometimes-grisly but compulsively readable look behind the surgeon’s mask.