29 May Thoughts on “Do No Harm”…
Henry Marsh’s memoir, Do No Harm, is a book that’s likely been on every medical student’s reading list at some point since it was published in 2014. If you’ve read it, you know that it’s a great read- a solid 4/5 by The Telegraph. Reading it requires a little Googling, maybe some tissues and probably no plans for the day because you won’t want to put it down. Content-wise it’s shocking, emotional, deep but also so simple. Marsh plainly reveals the medical world through his eyes and takes us on a walk in the shoes of a great neurosurgeon. As a medical student you might find that those shoes are: a) Huge to fill and b) make you feel the gravity of the world on your shoulders.
The book itself is written as a series of short episodes detailing surgeries Dr Marsh performed and his thoughts, feelings and insights regarding them. There are moments where he sucks out brain tumours and creates perfect happy endings but also ones where he does the exact opposite. Every single piece makes you feel something wild. He has written stories brilliantly highlighting the exciting, dramatic, shocking nature of medicine. As students, it is confronting to read real stories of doctors making grave mistakes juxtaposed with the amazement of them succeeding in remarkable, risky procedures. But neurosurgery tends to be that way, right? One wrong move and the poor patient is aphasic or paralysed or blind or who knows what else. A success story requires such skill and precision- it’s a bit extraordinary. But, let’s be honest, not every medical student is going to be a neurosurgeon one day or perform fantastic, risky procedures every day. Some of us will never even enter an operating theatre after internship. So what kind of inspiration can us simple, non-neurosurgeon folks draw from all this?
Personally, underpinning every line of Marsh’s book I see a type of patient understanding that I think can only come from someone that’s, literally, been inside their heads. I didn’t see the stereotypical surgeon with a ‘god-complex’ telling fascinating tales of exhilarating surgeries. Instead there is a keen understanding of people that comes from years of seeing his own actions affect them- for better or worse. Seeing things go drastically wrong and bearing witness to the aftermath obviously helps develop perspective and empathy, but the gravity of the situations that Marsh has seen ‘go wrong’ has created in him a unique kind of empathy. This is an empathy that is the product of a life rich in dramatic experience. Do No Harm presents each anecdote through the filter of this type of empathy, providing intuition that can only come from a life many of us will never know. This is the thing that’s made this book so invaluable and significant.
Do No Harm is not merely a collection of case studies, it’s a series of insights that reaches beyond just the medicine of healthcare and lets us step into a wise man’s shoes and stumble around.