Book Club

9 books that reveal the hidden challenges faced by doctors and patients

A stack of medical books by doctors and patients

Stories to help us empathize with those on the frontlines. Image: Kaya Bulbul

Kaya Bülbül
Digital Producer, World Economic Forum
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Book Club

As we grapple with the fears and challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak, many wonder what it means to be a health worker or a patient in the face of life-threatening disease.

A number of talented authors have already taken on this subject and put their experiences into memoirs and non-fiction books. Here are nine books that shed light on how doctors and patients cope with matters of life, death and everything in between.

Autobiographies and memoirs

Experience the life stories of these renowned doctors, from the intricacies of neurosurgery to the stress of running fertility clinics in warzones.

Two surgeons perform surgery on a patient
Dr. Henry Marsh describes his successes and failures as a neurosurgeon in 'Do No Harm' Image: Olga Guryanova via Unsplash
  • Do No Harm: Famous neurosurgeon Henry Marsh depicts, with great humility, the achievements and shortcomings of an impressive 40-year career exploring the brain. Each chapter describes an encounter with a particular pathology and the story of its patient.
  • This is Going to Hurt: Adam Kay presents the grueling years he spent training as an of OB/GYN through hilarious diary entries. Beneath the humour lies a poignant message regarding the inhumane treatment and working hours faced by young doctors.
  • I Shall Not Hate: Doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, recounts his lifestory, from being born and raised in a refugee camp on the Gaza strip, to becoming the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli hospital. Working tirelessly through periods of war to promote women’s health and fertility, Abuelaish has also become an activist for improving Israelo-Palestinian relations, even after losing three of his daughters to war.

The patient’s perspective

Nobody knows their disease better than the patients themselves. Read these incredible stories from the other side of the operating table.

Someone reading When Breath Becomes Air
A worldwide bestseller, 'When Breath Becomes Air' outlines Paul Kalanithi's life and battle with stage IV lung cancer Image: Piqsels
  • The Unwinding of the Miracle: Vietnamese-born Harvard lawyer Julie Yip-Williams unwinds her life, which was nothing short of miraculous, as she grapples with terminal colon cancer and the unfairness of dying at the age of 42 in a beautiful and honest memoir.
  • When Breath Becomes Air: Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi lived the exceptional experience of being both behind the operating table and on it. Having put his life on hold as a neurosurgical resident, Kalanithi conveys, with exceptional eloquence, the difficult process of “learning how to die”.
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Following a massive stroke, Jean Dominique Bauby finds himself a prisoner of his own body, only able to control a single eyelid. Originally in French, this remarkable book was written thanks to the blinking of that one eye, recounting reflections on life and existence.

Books written about the field of medicine

Medicine would be stagnant if it were not for the ever-shifting area of medical research. The following books provide deeper dives into specific fields within health.

A human figurine book-stand holds up the book 'The Emperor of All Maladies'
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee's, 'The Emperor of All Maladies' is an eerily beautiful biography of cancer Image: Brett Jordan via Flickr
  • Gut: Written and illustrated with humour and charm, Giulia Enders presents in simple terms the secret functioning of one of the most important and misunderstood organ systems of the body - the gut.
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: Celebrated oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee delineates the rich history of cancer, and demystifies it in the process. The book is a journey through time, linking the stories of the physicians and patients who have altered the treatment and evolution of this multifaceted disease.
  • Cure: Science journalist Jo Marchant uses evidence-based theories to investigate the complex interactions between mind and body (notably the mystical placebo effect), through encounters with patients, doctors and researchers from around the world.

These titles are just a few of the many books highlighting the emotional and technical complexities of the medical field - and how it shapes a range of lives.

No doubt, future versions of articles like this one will include memoirs detailing the particularly trying times faced by those working as medical professionals in the time of COVID-19.

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