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No more 'authentic' than any of the soaps
on 24 March 2003
The scariest thing about this book is the final sentence on the back-cover blurb: "...(a) disturbingly authentic dispatch from the frontline of hospital life". Jed Mercurio has made a name for himself by tapping into the recognition that hospital soaps used to portray a one-sided, glamorous view of hospital life, and deliberately portraying the other side: medical blunders, cover-ups, callous doctors etc. This does not make his book 'authentic'. Rather, it is equally one-sided - he presents a view that is jaundiced, pessimistic and ulimately hopeless. Just as the soaps cram far more heroism into hospital life than really occurs, so he crams far more lethal negligence and cynicism than really occurs. For most of us in the NHS, the truth lies somewhere between: we have seen (and perhaps made) both disastrous blunders and strokes of life-saving genius, amidst long stretches of routine; we have felt both despair and pride. Dr Mercurio's book may be authentic for him, but I find it hard to imagine he is in a majority.
The medicine itself is not always authentic either. I don't know of any NHS hospital (and I've worked in a few) where the medical SHO prescribes for and extubates patients on ICU. And as for a patient waking up immediately after a twenty-minute cardiac arrest (due to 'massive MI') - well, it could be straight off Holby City. Like a previous reviewer, I found the footnotes excessive. Maybe a non-medical reader would find them valuable, but even he/she would probably have spotted something wrong with Dr Mercurio's definition of the 'mons vaginis'.
On the plus side, Dr Mercurio makes some trenchant points: traditional medical school training is not well-geared to the practicalities of being a junior doctor; and hospitals have not been good at detecting (let alone correcting) weaknesses in the system that allow errors to be made. In these and other matters he has caught something of the Zeitgeist of the current NHS, which gives his book a topical bite. He does also have an ear for a truly poetic turn of phrase (the 'lithium wind' will stick in my memory for some time), and his prose is generally engaging.
The book inevitably invites comparison with 'The House of God', and unfortunately fares badly: it is as if Dr Mercurio has deliberately set out to write an NHS equivalent, and has succeeded so well that it might as well be a clone. It's all there: the worldly-wise role model, the suicidal colleague, the consultant obsessed with post-mortems and dress code, the wisecracks, the desperate sex (which becomes quite tedious eventually), even the semi-redemptive ending. 'Bodies' offers nothing new over its American predecessor, but is equally readable.
In short, to any aspiring doctor, medical student or interested layman, I'd say: read it by all means, but don't take it too seriously.