I’m delighted o be one of the final stops on the blog tour for Ed Patrick’s super medical memoir.
Memoirs by doctors nowadays tend to fall into distinct types, although in decades gone by it would usually only be surgeons who dominated the field. Surgeons still write memoirs, and I’ve reviewed a fair few including ones by trauma surgeon David Nott, brain surgeon Henry Marsh, heart surgeon Stephen Westaby and a woman’s-eye-view from Gabriel Weston.
But in recent years a new sub-type of doctors’ memoir has emerged – that of the doctor who is also a comedian. Arguably Phil Hammond got there first with Trust Me, I’m a Doctor around twenty years ago – and he’s still going. And the comedy world is full of doctors – The Goodie’s Graeme Garden, Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, and Harry Hill immediately come to mind. However, in 2017, Adam Kay’s ‘Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ titled This is Going to Hurt (reviewed here) revolutionised the genre, becoming a huge bestseller.
Now Ed Patrick joins the comedian doctor band with his memoir Catch Your Breath. One wonderful thing about most medical memoirs is that it is hard to tire of the stories of student medics and junior doctors. Through stomach-churning first encounters with cadavers, student japes through to moving moments when first patient dies on a new doctor’s watch, every doctor’s experience is different enough that there are new stories and alternative versions of old ones to tell, and Patrick finds plenty.
His is also the first memoir by an anaesthetist that I’ve read, and it’s fascinating to find out about the job that takes patients so near to death in order to make them better. It’s more than just the operating theatre though, it’s also more than being experts in pain relief, as we discover later in the book when Covid-19 arrives.
First, however, we meet Ed before he decided to change his career path to become a doctor. He was at the London School of Hygiene Tropical Medicine studying parasites.
Now, by looking down a microscope at a blood film, I can tell you not just whether a patient has malaria, but which type of malaria it is. Who doesn’t appreciate that little party trick?
He’s put onto a project looking at intestinal parasites in children, which means collecting poo samples from kids in schools initially, “show and smell” as he characterises it. This will be followed by collecting samples in China, compare and contrast. It’s enough to make you think again, and urged on by his professor, Ed applies to medical school. When he gets to the end, he can’t decide which speciality to go for, a GP would be great, but doesn’t have the hospital buzz. He takes a job teaching for a year. Cue hilarious story about meeting medical bigwigs on the way to a lecture about catheterisation with a bag of plastic foreskins in his hands.
Eventually, he decides that becoming an anaesthetist is the job for him and is accepted into training after a tense interview. Where the first hundred pages of this book have been typical fun, the next chapters will be altogether more serious as he learns the formerly arcane art of keeping patients breathing and pain-free for their operations. There is still room for funny stories though, as he recounts when finally allowed to fly solo in the operating theatre. Putting his middle-aged patient to sleep in the anteroom, he agonises over his layman’s choice of words:
“OK, a few deep breaths, then I’m going to give you the sleepy stuff and we’ll see you after the operation.”
But it’s all going well. The breathing tube goes smoothly into the right place. His consultant pops in to check:
“How did it go?”
“Great,” I reply. “He’s not dead.”
“Not yet. How about you turn the ventilator on.”
His training continues, he passes his exams. His girlfriend Josie, a midwife, finally moves in with him, all is hunky-dory. Then Covid-19 arrives, and life is turned upside down. As an anaesthetist, and breathing and ventilation expert, Ed will be one of the most in demand young doctors in the ICU. There is not only a serious risk of catching the virus, but of burn out too as the number of locum shifts he has to work increases, the ward round takes six hours in full PPE.
There is still room for a funny story. Ed and Josie had developed a hygiene routine for when they got home which involves mostly stripping off on the doorstep and straight into the shower – of course Ed manages to get locked out in the porch and must hide from kids passing by.
As I read this memoir, I particularly enjoyed the fact that Ed’s comedy is all directed at himself, never the patients, for whom he never shows anything but empathy. The main attraction of choosing his speciality was time with patients as he explains,
In anaesthetics it has to be one patient at a time, your sole focus on the person in front of you undergoing an anaesthetic, and being with them throughout the operation through to recovery.
The author comes over as a thoroughly good chap, self-deprecating, in touch with his feelings. His writing is assured, witty and honest. I started reading this book at bedtime a few days after my copy arrived, I was so gripped I just read it all the way through, finishing shortly after the late Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 at 0048! This is a superbly entertaining and timely medical memoir in which the author’s love for being a doctor shines through, I thoroughly recommend it, and give a shout out to the publisher for giving the book’s boards underneath the dust jacket, that green first aid box look, which I loved.
Source: Review copy – thank you!
Ed Patrick, Catch Your Breath (Brazen/Octopus, Aug 2021) Hardback 256 pages.
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