Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande

ComplicationsIt has been years (probably at least five, since the last Harry Potter book release in 2007) since I can honestly say I’ve read a book that I couldn’t put down. Complications was that for me this week.

Complications is Gawande’s first book, published in 2002. At the time, he was a surgical resident in the Boston area, where today he is currently a cancer surgeon. Since, he has written two other books, is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and an associate professor of surgery at Harvard. You may have seen him on the news recently being interviewed about Obamacare.

The central theme of the book is the fallibility of doctors. Has a doctor ever told you, “You may have such-and-such, and there’s a 5% chance that this-and-that will happen”? They most likely made that statistic up on the spot. Granted, it’s not JUST a number—the doctor is using his or her past experience with the disease or problem, and may remember reading up on studies or past cases. They’re also quickly factoring in your age, gender, and overall health. Mostly, however, that “5% chance” statement is pure speculation intended to reassure you and gain your trust that you are, in fact, in competent hands.

Gawande is not untruthful or boastful about anything. I have always had a fascination with doctors—even the slimier ones I’ve had—because it’s a job I know I could never do. My fascination has grown as I now go to grad school at a medical college and hospital—I not only pass doctors everyday, but am surrounded by (and will soon have to TA) future doctors. To enter a thoughtful, reflective surgeon’s head, as I could while reading this book, was invaluable. He touches on his own experiences; details of studies on doctors’ and surgeons’ errors; surgical technologies; and fascinating anecdotes including, but not limited to, gastric bypass, flesh-eating bacteria, chronic blushing, and extreme nausea during pregnancy. His style is clear and easy. Other than the obvious Marley and Me, it’s probably the first non-fiction book I’ve ever teared up while reading. (Okay, Marley and Me may have been more than just “tearing up.”)

I had gotten this book for my boyfriend, a surgical tech student, for Christmas as a recommendation from my grad school counselor. Now into his first surgical tech job, he’s looking forward to re-reading it. I just read the last sentence an hour ago and I’m already looking forward to reading more of Gawande’s writing. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever questioned a doctor’s prescriptions, instructions, or motives before—which is probably most of us. I took a lot of out my reading and hope this review has inspired others to as well.

Availability: USMAI
Review Submitted by: Jordan Gaines, Alum ’11
Rating:  Must Read

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