Since starting this blog, I have read various memoirs by medical professionals – a genre which provides thought-provoking insight into the practical and emotional side of modern medicine. From Atul Gawande to Suzanne O’Sullivan to Kathryn Mannix, each has offered new insight into their work and area of expertise, often through the stories of individual patients. I have recently read two more books which broaden the scope of the genre beyond case studies and explore other aspects of the author’s personal lives, careers and their specialties.
In his memoir ‘Face to Face’, Professor Jim McCaul, a consultant surgeon in maxillofacial surgery at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, recounts cases in which he has restored patients’ appearances following accidents, violence and the removal of tumours from the head and neck (which take up around 80% of his work). McCaul admits to fainting during the first operation he witnessed as a medical student but he has gone on to have an eclectic career which includes treating patients with gunshot wounds during a stint in Miami, a middle-aged woman whose cosmetic surgery has positive life-changing results and an elderly patient whose incurable oral cancer threatens to suffocate her. Part of the book also looks at the history of plastic surgery in the early 20th century and the techniques developed to treat soldiers injured during the First World War, some of which are still used today. In vivid prose, McCaul writes particularly well about the absolute concentration required to complete such delicate procedures (the leaf skeleton is a fitting cover design) and how our whole sense of self and identity is so closely bound with our facial appearance.
‘All That Remains: A Life in Death’ by Professor Dame Sue Black reflects on her career as a forensic anthropologist and anatomist where she was head of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee until last summer. Whereas pathologists carry out post-mortems to confirm the cause of a person’s death, forensic anthropologists identify human remains of unknown origin based on evidence of the age and sex of the corpse and clues as to where and how they lived. As well as her contribution towards various criminal investigations and missing persons cases, Black also addresses the deaths of her parents and muses on her own mortality in a surprisingly chatty style. While some of the more colloquial phrases peppered throughout the text don’t always sit well with the seriousness of the subject matter, I like that her personality and natural expression shine through and makes the book accessible to an audience who might not otherwise engage with its main topic, which is presumably her main motivation for writing it.
Consequently, Black makes a strong case towards society being more open and less fearful towards death and promotes the option of donating one’s corpse to medical science which she has made plans to do herself after her own death. Her expertise in analysing human remains and her pioneering work in disaster victim identification has taken her to the heart of the conflict in Bosnia and the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. The descriptions of the recovery of mass casualties in the most challenging conditions are shocking and are among the strongest chapters in this memorable book.
Both of these books were published in 2018 which means they are eligible for this year’s health and medicine themed Wellcome Book Prize, the longlist of which will be announced on Tuesday 5th February. I will be participating in an unofficial shadow panel of the shortlist with fellow book bloggers Rebecca, Laura, Annabel and Paul as we read the nominated books over the coming weeks.