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The Blood of Strangers: true stories from the emergency room Hardcover – 4 Jan 2001
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Frank Huyler may be competent as a physician, but he excels as a writer. These 28 medical tales, subtitled "True Stories from the Emergency Room", have been lightly sprinkled with a fictive coating and honed to a skeletal starkness that renders them as fleeting as cinematic takes. Chronologically following his early career from medical student to 32-year-old hospital doctor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his evocation of a frequently harsh learning curve exposes space and stillness even in the claustrophobic intensity of ER. As an intern, he stitches a man's gashed face, and returns the next to day to admire his handiwork, only to realise, after a while, that it's now the face of a corpse. He saves another man's life by plunging a needle in his chest to relieve air pressure, then returns later, "savoring him, taking something for myself".
Such conventional heroic acts are balanced, if not exceeded, by mistakes. He misses a broken neck, and nearly kills a man by giving him antibiotics to which he's allergic, but he learns the value of instinct. The distance between the flesh and the person is constantly borne out: people he knows intimately, inside out literally, regain consciousness only to meet his attentions with blank indifference. It's enough to test the most durable soul, and it does. A fellow student murders his partner, and a neurosurgeon maintains a serious drug habit, practises voodoo and sleeps wantonly with bodies denuded of emotion. Blue is the colour, of their moods and the flesh and innards that splatter their working day. Huyler himself, in one of the bleakest moments, passes on the possibility of a relationship with a colleague, feeling only "this vacancy, this spending cold".
Predictably, critics have cited Raymond Carver and Chekhov in their praise. Huyler's writing stands the comparison. In his heady, sleep-deprived intensity, he seeks out poetic truths rather than clinical ones, reaching them through the visceral, and exposing them to our glance. The Blood of Strangers represents a brilliant, precocious debut, best taken whole, though probably not before meals. --David Vincent
'Dr Huyler's short, intense book treats of only the most important matters: life and death. His prose is nearly invisible, and therefore it allows us to see what he is talking about. And once we see it, we are not likely to forget it. This is a young writer with a big mind - and an even bigger heart.' -- Paul Auster
'If Raymond Carver had been a doctor, these are the stories he would have written. There are no untarnished heroes here. This is the world as it is: lovely and disturbed all at once.' -- Atul Gawande, New Yorker
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I would urge anybody contemplating a career in medicine to read this book, as it does a great job at presenting what medicine in the real world is about. Hopefully then those dreaded words - "I just want to help people." - won't pass their lips at interview.
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