Good Reading – Surgeon writers share their experiences with a wider audience



Are you casting about for a good book for yourself – maybe something to take on a long plane ride? Or are you looking for something for a young person interested in a career in surgery? Consider reading (or giving) a book written by a fellow surgeon.

To find such books, visit the ACS Surgeon Writers topic on the ACS Communities site. After just 6 months, this community has grown to 180 active members who share information on writing contests and conferences, pass on tips on mutual problems, and celebrate publications ranging from articles to full-length books. To participate in the dialogue, add your voice (and your publications) to our membership list. To find a book by a fellow surgeon, go through the files that form a sort of virtual bookshelf under the “Library” section. Don’t worry, you won’t find any thick surgical textbooks there, but rather books written for a wider audience. Fantasy, fiction, patient education, and memoir are all represented.

I’ve picked three memoirs to get you started. One is an anthology of pieces written by female surgeons. The second will take you into the world of transplant surgery. In the third, you accompany the surgeon-author to South Sudan on a mission for Doctors Without Borders (MSF). These true accounts, written by fellow surgeons, have the power to transport you into a world similar to, yet different from, your own surgical milieu.

Being a Woman Surgeon: Sixty Women Share Their Stories is a generous anthology collected and edited by Preeti John, MD, FACS. These short chapters are bite-sized reading tidbits that can be enjoyed in a few moments of spare time. You can read the book from cover to cover or dip into it randomly. It’s a great book to give to that young woman in your life – daughter, granddaughter, or mentee – who is thinking of a career in any of the surgical specialties (including, of course, general surgery). Female pediatric surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, general surgeons, and some leaders in the field of surgery contributed to this book.

Dr. John organized them by topic and by specialty, and included some interviews and poems at the end. It’s a generous slice of life. Surgeons share formative experiences from their training, the evolution of their careers, choice of paths, and the unfolding of their lives.

Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon’s Odyssey by Bud Shaw, MD, FACS, takes the reader along on a journey from the early days of liver transplant into the modern era. Many things in this book will resonate with the surgeon-reader. Three chapters aptly subtitled “Initiation” open the book. The year is 1981, and Dr. Shaw has just completed his surgical residency and begun a transplant fellowship in Pittsburgh. The humbling transformation from confident chief resident to beginner will ring true with any surgeon who has done a challenging fellowship. After an account of the first days’ chaotic, blinding confusion he ends with the admission that even abusive words, spoken in the heat of the moment, became phrases that he would “…in the distance of time and place, yearn to hear again.” Many who trained under the giants, in an era remote from work-hour limitations and political correctness, can identify with this sentiment.

The book threads nonlinearly, like memory itself, through time and space. Shaw includes his own experience with illness, and recounts how his surgeon-father reduced an inguinal hernia that could have been an ominous inguinal lymph node for his son. His father “was ninety years old then and he couldn’t remember what he’d had for breakfast, but he could still fix me with his hands.”

Ajak's Song
Ajak's Song

Ajak’s Song by Kenneth Waxman, MD, FACS, takes the reader to South Sudan with MSF. The account captures the frustrations and uncertainties of working in such an austere environment. General surgeons contemplating such a tour of duty will be interested in the medical details, including management of chronic osteomyelitis. From one such case comes the title of the book. Ajak, a young woman, develops a chronic open wound with exposed tibia after surviving a snake bite. Her path to the MSF hospital staffed by Dr. Waxman is circuitous, and she has already endured considerable treatment through an escalating series of healers. Amputation seems inevitable, but a plan is made to attempt to clean and heal the wound. Multiple operations are required. After her first procedure (and each subsequent one), Ajak awakens from anesthesia with a smile on her face, singing a song of thanks. As the small team waits with their young patient until she is ready to return to the ward, “Ajak repeatedly sings her lovely song.” By the end of the book, the reader will come to hear Ajak’s song as well.

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