Being a physician means reaching out and connecting with others, more specifically, with those experiencing physical hardships. As ophthalmologists, we strive to advance our clinical and surgical skills, but this is not enough to establish human connections; our knowledge must go beyond technical expertise. There are many ways to attain a deeper understanding of others, such as through traveling, interacting with different types of people, and reading.
This article discusses three books that I believe can help ophthalmologists broaden their knowledge and understanding of their patients. Choosing reading recommendations for my colleagues was not an easy task. There are many diverse options, and each leaves its mark on us in a particular way. I know that, for some, certain books will come to mind immediately. Here are my own selections.
No. 1: The House of God by Samuel Shem
Samuel Shem—a pseudonym for Stephen Bergman, MD, PhD—is a well-known physician and psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. Although The House of God was written in 1978, its stories about daily medical practice continue to be relevant today. Widely read among doctors and medical students in the United States, the novel follows a group of medical interns at a fictional US hospital called The House of God. In a sarcastic and tragicomic way, narrator Roy Basch describes the doctors’ varied personalities, how they learn about medicine, how they deal with illness and death, and how dehumanizing the experience can be.
I found it striking how similar the experiences across different hospitals can be, regardless of the country where they’re located. This book is humorous but, at the same time, acknowledges the sometimes-dreadful side of daily medical practice. Some of us might even be reminded of horrifying memories of our own residency training. The House of God is not only fun to read, but it also offers a critique of medical training and of the harsh competition among doctors.
No. 2: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh, MD
Do No Harm—no doubt a thought-provoking title—is an autobiography by Henry Marsh, MD, a neurosurgeon in England. Dr. Marsh narrates all kinds of events in the surgical unit in a simple and direct way—an honest confession, one might say. He chronicles highly complex surgeries that show his expertise and achievements along with his unintentional mistakes.
Do No Harm depicts the complexity of a neurosurgeon’s everyday life and the difficult decisions he or she faces, which may save lives or produce severe consequences. The pressure of such critical moments can be clearly felt throughout the narrative, but Dr. Marsh’s writing also allows readers to experience the joy and emotional impact of a successful treatment. A memorable passage in the book reminds us that, when patients are ill in the hospital and fearing for their well-being, they place great trust and hope in their caretakers. Many times, patients endow their doctors with superhuman qualities. If everything goes well, the doctor is a hero. If not, then he or she is a villain. But the reality is that doctors are human, and some of what happens in hospitals has to do with luck. Outcomes may be good or bad, and, as doctors, we don’t always have control of a case’s success or failure.
No. 3: The Country of the Blind by H.G. Wells
My third book recommendation was written by world-renowned English writer H.G. Wells. You may be familiar with his novels The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of Worlds, but I’d like to also suggest The Country of the Blind. This work tells the story of Nuñez, a man who is blind in one eye and travels to a village in the Andes mountains. The village was cut off from the rest of civilization by an earthquake that occurred 15 generations before, and all of its inhabitants are blind. They know nothing about the concept of sight, and, in fact, they deny its existence.
Nuñez tries desperately to explain the world that he can see—what the sky looks like, what the mountains look like, and so on—but he fails miserably. At the same time, he attempts to take advantage of the villagers because he believes an ancient proverb that says, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” The proverb proves to be wrong, and Nuñez’s experience is disastrous. The villagers cannot understand the meaning of his words. Everything about what vision means and the words related to it have been forgotten or changed. Wells offers a taste of fantasy in realism and reminds readers just how much viewpoints can differ.
There are plenty of books worth reviewing, and approaching a wide range of topics through reading enables us to see the world in a new light. It can help us change our views, improve the places where we live, and become better doctors who are more closely connected with others.