Why Do These Books Make Fun Of Their Patients?Posted: December 21, 2019
I’m not sure I have much of a sense of humor. C’est la vie; we can’t all be great at everything and I already have a pretty nice array of skills. I’ll take “Intuitive Computer Ability,” “Didactic Flexibility,” and “Cookie Baking” for $600 apiece, Alex! You can have your good sense of humor – I know how an ALU works. But I feel I have to mention this little thing about humor because it’s possible I’m just not getting the joke in this particular case.
This is the case of the medical memoirs that make fun of their patients.
I first ran into this in A Thousand Naked Strangers by Kevin Hazzard. This is an account of an average man’s descent into the nightly hilarity known as people in severe, traumatic, and life-altering medical crisis. Parts are poignant, but what I remember most about the book is how entertaining Hazzard’s voice was.
And why not? It’s a piece of consumer literature. It’s made to sell, and stories about people desperate for help are just riveting. And, according to Hazzard, sometimes very funny. Like the poor man who misinterpreted a paramedic intervention as an alien abduction. A riot! I admit I was captivated.
And deeply disturbed. Sure, the names were changed, but these were real people who could easily recognize themselves from this account. If nothing else, their anguish and bad memories had become fodder for some random writer they’d encountered in a previous life, someone they didn’t even know. Did he track them down and ask permission? Did he pass on any royalties, or even let them know that they’d be in his book?
I can’t find any evidence that he did.
Hazzard is a way more successful writer than I am. Moreover, he’s not a librarian, and librarians tend to be hyper-aware of patron privacy. That’s not to say that we don’t have some wild patron stories. I myself have a few absolute cookers that I wish to goodness that I could share. But I can’t – those are people, not fodder for my ego and my writing career. Their foibles, fallacies, addictions, heartbreaks, joys, hopes, and loves are not mine for the writing. And I’m not even in medicine!
Now, I’m running into the same issue with
This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident by Adam Kay. I got this as an ALC from Libro.fm earlier this month, but apparently, it’s been out in Britain since 2017. While Kay focuses on lampooning himself – and sometimes dragging other doctors – he also does the obligatory patient-put-something-up-the-butt thing. Because patients! Aren’t they wacky? Isn’t it funny? Isn’t it?
Maybe I’m suffering from a terminal case of not-fun, but I’m past the point where I can stomach these types of memoirs. I had to stop listening to Kay’s book two hours in because I found myself sympathizing more with the misinformed, confused, and guilty patients than with the snarky ex-doctor. While I’m glad he was able to make something good, or at least satisfying, from a job that was apparently stressful to the extreme, I also wouldn’t want this guy treating me – ever. The thought of becoming fodder for a clever punchline about the craaazy doctoring life chills me, and I felt increasingly guilty about my sudden knowledge of his hapless ex-patients. Because what non-medic among us hasn’t gone to the doc for something stupid? God help me, I will use my inhaler every damn day if it means that I don’t have to risk the UrgentCare guy writing a side-splitting account of my annual self-inflicted need for an emergency nebulization.
Moreover, who among us hasn’t been written off by a medical professional because the physician assumed that we were histrionic idiots? These memoirs are about meds being smart and the rest of us being, if not outright dumb, then certainly passive. The arrogance from which many docs suffer is really a symptom of an overclocked healthcare system, the objectification of a real human and their real suffering by the inevitable overworking of qualified medical professionals. It’s sad that good people get worked into the ground like this, but it doesn’t excuse the dismissal of patients as numbers, symptoms, or, worst of all, problems.
I can’t help but see Kay and Hazzard as contributing to the problem from an oblique angle. They’re objectifying people who are already vulnerable to becoming numbers by packaging them as good stories. Anonymization is beside the point – and anyway, I’m not sure how anonymous a story can be if it features a unique medical ailment in a particular location, like Atlanta or Scotland. The point is that these folks are being commodified because they were sick once. The sickness is their defining trait, and even in Hazzard’s book, which claims that “we’ll…learn from [patients]” in the course of his book, it’s hard to see them as anything but a case.
As I write this, I wonder about another medical memoir, Atul Gawande’s
Better : A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, a book that received widespread approbation and glowing reviews when it came out in 2007. I haven’t read it. After beginning – and dumping – Kay’s book, I really feel that I ought to. This is how reading binges start, and I’m scared of where this one will ultimately take me. Here’s hoping that Gawande’s book lives up to its good name and redeems literary doctors in my eyes.