The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year
Audiobook read by the author
Crown (April 2015), hardcover (ISBN 9780804138659)
Nonfiction: memoir, 336 pages
Audiobook: Random House Audio (2015), ISBN 9781101889251
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I was never inclined to pursue a medical career, but I find hospitals fascinating places, and medical memoirs have become one of my favorite forms of nonfiction. As I learn more about the insights and experiences of those who practice medicine, it becomes less mysterious and intimidating to me, and I think that makes me a better, wiser patient. Doctors are overworked, overtired, struggling humans too.
After a lackluster year playing minor-league baseball, Yale graduate Matt McCarthy decided he might have better career prospects elsewhere, and applied to Harvard Medical School. The rotations through various specialties that constitute the last two years of a med-school education left him uncertain of exactly what kind of doctor he wanted to be, but certain he did not want to be a surgeon. One of the goals of McCarthy’s first year of residency in internal medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City is to further narrow that down. His memoir of that year, The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly, chronicles his various misadventures and ultimate growth as a physician as he progresses toward that goal. Imposter Syndrome is only one of the challenges confronting him on his journey toward competence.
Misdiagnosing a new patient on his first day in the cardiac care unit wasn’t an auspicious beginning to McCarthy’s intern year. Jabbing himself with a blood-filled syringe while working with a patient in the infectious-disease unit several weeks later had the potential to be a far greater setback to his progress–the patient’s infections were the unfortunate combination of advanced HIV and hepatitis-C. As if thirty-hour work shifts and the unsettling, exhausting on-the-job training weren’t already pressure enough, McCarthy would also be managing a complex regimen of anti-AIDS drugs during the ten to twelve weeks he’d have to wait to take a diagnostic blood test.
This rough start suggests that The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly will be a tragedy. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will promise you it’s not. It’s an eye-opening, honest, often funny and occasionally graphic look at the process of modern medical training. The audiobook is read by the author, and while McCarthy isn’t a professional narrator, telling his own story made it even more engaging for me.
That said, McCarthy’s story might make you a bit apprehensive about being treated at a teaching hospital; any fears that the doctors might not actually know what they’re doing may not be baseless, at least as far as the first-year residents are concerned. (When you’re the one on the exam table or in the hospital bed, it could be a little unsettling to realize that you’re part of your doctor’s on-the-job training.) However, I found it enlightening to learn more about how doctors learn to be doctors–and after all, it is called “practicing” medicine.
“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.
“This funny, candid memoir of McCarthy’s intern year at a New York hospital provides a scorchingly frank look at how doctors are made, taking readers into patients’ rooms and doctors’ conferences to witness a physician’s journey from ineptitude to competence. McCarthy’s one stroke of luck paired him with a brilliant second-year adviser he called “Baio” (owing to his resemblance to the Charles in Charge star), who proved to be a remarkable teacher with a wicked sense of humor. McCarthy would learn even more from the people he cared for, including a man named Benny, who was living in the hospital for months at a time awaiting a heart transplant. But no teacher could help McCarthy when an accident put his own health at risk, and showed him all too painfully the thin line between doctor and patient.
“The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly offers a window on to hospital life that dispenses with sanctimony and self-seriousness while emphasizing the black-comic paradox of becoming a doctor: How do you learn to save lives in a job where there is no practice?”
From the Prologue:
“After years of quiet study in the libraries, laboratories, and lecture halls of Harvard Medical School, I finally made the tectonic shift to hospital life in the summer of 2006. The third year of medical school marks a startling departure from the academic fantasia of study groups and pass/fail exams, and I was flooded with anxiety. I valued sleep, I wasn’t sure how I’d handle destructive criticism, and I was known to have an irritable bowel.
“The first assignment in my rotation was surgery, a three-month slog of 120-hour workweeks at Massachusetts General Hospital that was designed to identify the handful of future surgeons in our class of roughly 165 students. On my first day, I was assigned to a team with a desiccated fifth-year surgical resident named Axel, who had piercing periwinkle eyes and an Adam’s apple that caused my eyes to bounce when he spoke. Axel could fairly be described as a member of the Undead; he had traded the better part of his youth for world-class surgical training and wasn’t sure it had been a fair swap.”