I enjoyed reading It’s All In Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan a couple of years ago, a collection of case studies about patients with psychosomatic illness in which medically unexplained physical symptoms are found to be caused by emotional stress. O’Sullivan is a consultant neurologist and her latest book ‘Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology’ focuses on the vast array of symptoms and types of seizures which can present in patients suspected of having epilepsy. Rather than the fits that many associate with the condition, some seizures manifest themselves in unexpected and dangerous ways which are not easy to explain to strangers. For example, August is a bright young woman who bolts and runs when she has a seizure with no awareness of her surroundings, often into the path of traffic. Others experience them in the form of bizarre auras, such as Donal, a school janitor who learns that he might be at risk of losing his job due to cuts, starts experiencing hallucinations of cartoon dwarves.
‘Brainstorm’ offers excellent insight into how epilepsy clinics are run, where patients are admitted and filmed round-the-clock so that they can be observed by medical teams when they have a seizure. There is a collective sense of frustration felt by patients who often spend years seeking a diagnosis and treatment and O’Sullivan herself at not being able to solve the puzzles presented to her as quickly as she would like. Readers may well share this frustration due to the lack of conclusive endings to several chapters here, but it gives some sense of the agonisingly slow wait many patients with long-term conditions have to endure and how debilitating and unusual their symptoms can be. Although less controversial than its predecessor, ‘Brainstorm’ is a compelling book which I recommend to those who enjoy the increasingly popular genre of medical memoirs.
Talking of medical memoirs, Caroline Elton notes in the introduction to her book ‘Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors’, that while there have been several books written by doctors reflecting on their work and case studies of the patients they have treated (Suzanne O’Sullivan is just one example along with Henry Marsh, Kathryn Mannix, Oliver Sacks and many others), there have not been nearly so many where doctors themselves are the subjects of case studies. Over the past two decades of her career as an occupational psychologist, Elton has shadowed and interviewed hundreds of doctors and this book offers an eye-opening look into how the transition from medical school to junior doctor is managed, the varied reasons why doctors choose their specialties and how clinicians develop emotional resilience. Many medics experience sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination and it’s clear that the system is not well designed to help those who are struggling. For example, those who don’t score highly in the Situational Judgement Test at the end of their final exams are more likely to end up in placements where they are not well supported or working in a part of the country they have no links with.
Although many of the case studies eventually have positive outcomes, the tone is generally pessimistic presumably because Elton has come into contact with more doctors who are not well suited to medicine or have had unfortunate experiences than I hope is typical in the profession. Overall, ‘Also Human’ is a thought-provoking book which rightly reminds us that doctors are not superhuman. Many thanks to Random House UK, William Heinemann for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.