Category Archives: health

When Breath Becomes Air- Paul Kalaniti


Paul Kalaniti has been studying and working for ten years. His residency is almost over and he shows great promise as a future neurosurgeon.

Then Paul is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer, his future seems to be slipping away as he starts to loose his role as a doctor to become a patient.


I mainly picked up this book because it seemed like it would be a medical memoir that saw things from two sides. To an extent it was that, but it was much more personal.

Kalaniti had always wanted to find some meaning in life, he started off studying literature; believing he could find something there, then he moved into medicine- maybe some practice involving life and death would give him that? Whether he gained more from medicine is somewhat unclear but it certainly seemed to be the right path for him, and his relationships with his patients in particular seemed to add something to his knowledge of what life was all about. But it was only when he was staring death in the face that Kalaniti found what was important to him.

In some ways it being both a doctor’s memoir and a patient’s memoir made it not quite an adequate version of either. I found the descriptions of his patients and surgery to be a bit lacking, and his own medical knowledge meant that his patient experience was not typical. That does not mean it was not a good memoir overall. It was interesting to see where Kalaniti the doctor and the patient overlapped, and the particular issues that came with knowledge.

There was also a sort of unfinished feel about it. Almost unedited. I wonder how much of that was due to the fact that Kalaniti died whilst writing it (something expected) and how much was to do with posthumous editing. The epilogue written by Kalaniti’s wife gave some closure, but it is real life, nothing should be a closed book. So it did mean that as a reader you came away with wanting more but in a way that was perfect for the book- it was like a sense of mourning.

I definitely recommend this book, just don’t expect an emotionally easy ride.


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Other Reviews:

So Many Books, so Little Time

Worth Getting in Bed For


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Filed under health, medical, Memoir, non-fiction review

Do No Harm- Henry Marsh


Henry Marsh is a renowned brain surgeon working in the NHS in the UK. In ‘Do No Harm’ he gives an account of his life as a brain surgeon. He speaks of how the NHS has changed over the years, his victories and his failures, and the effects these things have had on his life.



I found out about ‘Do No Harm’ first through Ellie’s blog, and I added it to my wishlist instantly, since that time I heard lots of great things about it, but it was only when it came up on the kindle monthly deals that I actually bought it, in some ways I’m glad I waited, in others I wish I’d gotten to it sooner.

I actually ended up reading it when I was in hospital for my own operation (because apparently I’m insane) I think that I could read about operations at the time without getting freaked out shows just how interested I was. Having said that I wouldn’t say it’s a good book for the faint hearted, there are some rather graphic descriptions of operations- although personally I felt Marsh’s sense of control and anxiety more than I felt squeamish.

You did get a sense of Marsh caring about his patients, he spoke about how he had caused the death, or lack of life, in some patients and how you had to lock that knowledge away because otherwise you would just give up, but that didn’t stop you from feeling guilty. When you do operations which do have such a high level of risk then there are bound to be times that it doesn’t go to plan, and Marsh has probably saved more lives than he has ended, he has a strange mix of guilt for these cases and the stereotypical surgeon arrogance. It made me start to think of that arrogance as a sort of defense mechanism- like a surgeon needs that arrogance otherwise they will always be terrified of what failure will cause, they have to believe things will go right to be able to take that risk.

Another interesting thing was how Marsh talked about how the NHS has changed, and, as he sees it, has become less effective. He wrote of how things were held back by too much paperwork, and bureaucracy, and computers that didn’t work. At one point he is trying to get some x-ray results, but he doesn’t seem to be able to see them on his computer so he goes to the x-ray department, who only seem to be able to see them with one person’s log in. The computers are meant to make things easier but Marsh says if they had the old x-ray films he could have just picked it up and looked in a few seconds instead of trying for a long time to see them on the computer.

This is particularly poignant now because the NHS has been getting lots of cuts, and sold off to private companies, both things which makes it harder for frontline staff to do their jobs. We are very lucky in this country. Our NHS is (generally) free. Anyone can access healthcare. Without the NHS some of Marsh’s patients wouldn’t have been able to afford their operations. It seems crazy that people think the NHS should be scrapped. No it’s not perfect, but the thought of it going away terrifies me, and that seems to be what our current government is working towards. We have a nursing shortage but for some reason the government decided that they would stop the nursing bursary, and we have lots of foreign nurses which we may no longer have with Brexit, and lots of nurses are leaving because their pay has been frozen, they’re having to do more hours, and the paperwork side of things has increased so much that they feel they can’t give time to patients.

Okay end of political rant.

I really found this book interesting and Marsh’s style of writing made it easy to read as well rather than clinical and dry. Now I just have to decide whether to buy a similar book about heart surgery next or Marsh’s second memoir…any recommendations?


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Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole- Allan Ropper and David Brian Burrell

Synopsis (from amazon)

What is it like to try to heal the body when the mind is under attack? In this gripping and illuminating book, Dr Allan Ropper reveals the extraordinary stories behind some of the life-altering afflictions that he and his staff are confronted with at the Neurology Unit of Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Like Alice in Wonderland, Dr Ropper inhabits a place where absurdities abound: a sportsman who starts spouting gibberish; an undergraduate who suddenly becomes psychotic; a mother who has to decide whether a life locked inside her own head is worth living. How does one begin to treat such cases, to counsel people whose lives may be changed forever? Dr Ropper answers these questions by taking the reader into a world where lives and minds hang in the balance.


Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole was one of my five star reads last year, but my lack of blogging means I haven’t actually reviewed it yet.

In fact I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction drive over the last year. In so far as I’ve been reading this year proportionally I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction.

It’s a little bit like ‘The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly’ combined with ‘House’. Lots of real life medical symptoms which seem to have obscure reasons behind them. That tends to be a lot of physical symptoms which have neurological causes, or neurological or psychological symptoms which actually have a physical cause. It’s part of what I always found interesting about House, so it’s even more interesting to see it in real life.

In other ways it’s a lot like some of Oliver Saks work. However I found it easier to read than the things that Saks had written (and I’ve read).

I also liked that you got to see a bit of the hospital itself and also the authors own learning curve. It added a little something. I guess you could say it’s a human element which you don’t get from standard case studies.


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Filed under Fiction review, health, non-fiction review, psychology (non-fiction)

Furiously Happy- Jenny Lawson

Synopsis (from amazon)

In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson regaled readers with uproarious stories of her bizarre childhood. In her new book, Furiously Happy, she explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

As Jenny says: ‘You can’t experience pain without also experiencing the baffling and ridiculous moments of being fiercely, unapologetically, intensely and (above all) furiously happy.’ It’s a philosophy that has – quite literally – saved her life.


I loved Let’s Pretend This Never Happened so I was excited when I heard Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) had a new book coming out.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened was hilarious, so I was expecting the same from Jenny’s new book. It was very funny, but it had more of a serious side than her first book had. I still liked it, but it wasn’t as easy a read.

This one featured a lot about Jenny’s mental illness. That made it less light, although a lot lighter than you would expect of a book which has a high content about mental illness. She had a philosophy of always being Furiously Happy when her illness would allow her. A way to show that she could have a good, happy, time, a way to say that that illness is not her.

Jenny says she wrote this book with people who have the same problems as her in mind. So I wasn’t exactly the target market, but I still found the book pretty uplifting, and I definitely enjoyed Jenny’s sense of humour.

If you loved the first one you can’t go wrong with this, but I think you may be better off starting with the first.


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Filed under Biography, Comedy, health, Memoir, non-fiction review

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly- Matt McCarthy

Synopsis (from amazon)

In medical school, Matt McCarthy dreamed of being a different kind of doctor the sort of mythical, unflappable physician who could reach unreachable patients. But when a new admission to the critical care unit almost died his first night on call, he found himself scrambling. Visions of mastery quickly gave way to hopes of simply surviving hospital life, where confidence was hard to come by and no amount of med school training could dispel the terror of facing actual patients.


McCarthy’s autobiography is an interesting and eye opening look into the American healthcare system. It would be interesting to see how it differs from a doctor’s experience in the NHS.

I must admit that I expected to see lots about patients who couldn’t afford the healthcare that they need, the idea of no NHS is not one I like, and I never really understood people who are against ‘Obamacare’ in the US. There was a little bit of that, but in was only really a very small part of the book, and I wouldn’t even say it was particularly hard hitting. At one point McCarthy was interning in the medical centre, which seemed pretty much like a drop in centre would be here in the UK, except that the same patients would keep returning. I say like a drop in centre because the treatment seemed rushed, and fairly basic, for example medication over other possible solutions which a specialist might recommend. Plus it seemed like it was mainly run by interns, which suggested a lack of continuity of care. McCarthy found that it was difficult to get to grips with the patient notes because there was a rush and lots of notes to read. He found reading just the latest notes wasn’t enough, but reading further took too much time. Part of this I think was to do with his approach, but it seems that with this patients would end up falling through the gaps.

There was also a section where he went to se and treat the homeless. This bit was too brief I felt, but he only did it for one night. There was certainly enough to give me admiration for people who do it. I think this bit would be pretty much the same in the UK, I imagine homeless people easily don’t see GPs, or go to appointments at hospitals, just because they are hard to keep contact with, and I’m not even sure if you can register with a doctor if you don’t have an address.

Anyway I am going on somewhat of a tangent. I really enjoyed this book. There were plenty of ups and downs and at times you thought that maybe Matt wasn’t cut out for it. After all being a doctor is one of those jobs where a mistake can really cost someone, even to the point of death. But everyone has to start somewhere and it was a real eye opener on how hard things are for doctors, especially those still training.

The hours were absolutely ridiculous. I mean you’d think that you want someone that important to be as sharp as possible when they were working, but the long days meant that was practically impossible. It certainly gave me more sympathy for the junior doctors over here (and I already supported them).

Despite the subject having the potential to be either over emotional or too dry I thought McCarthy did a really good job. There was emotion when it mattered, but it a way you had to be like a doctor and not get too bogged down in the emotions- and the way McCarthy wrote helped with that. He actually made it quite an easy read, and entertaining, which I hadn’t expected. I had expected it to be interesting, and it was, but I did expect it to be so entertaining. I thoroughly recommend


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Filed under health, Memoir, non-fiction review