Reviews: Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality
Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on MortalityPauline W. Chen Available Here
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A brilliant young transplant surgeon brings moral intensity and narrative drama to the most powerful and vexing questions of medicine and the human condition. When Pauline Chen began medical school twenty years ago, she dreamed of saving lives. What she did not count on was how much death would be a part of her work. Almost immediately, Chen found herself wrestling with medicine’s most profound paradox, that a profession premised on caring for the ill also systematically depersonalizes dying. Final Exam follows Chen over the course of her education, training, and practice as she grapples at strikingly close range with the problem of mortality, and struggles to reconcile the lessons of her training with her innate knowledge of shared humanity, and to separate her ideas about healing from her fierce desire to cure. From her first dissection of a cadaver in gross anatomy to the moment she first puts a scalpel to a living person; from the first time she witnesses someone flatlining in the emergency room to the first time she pronounces a patient dead, Chen is struck by her own mortal fears: there was a dying friend she could not call; a young patient’s tortured death she could not forget; even the sense of shared kinship with a corpse she could not cast aside when asked to saw its pelvis in two. Gradually, as she confronts the ways in which her fears have incapacitated her, she begins to reject what she has been taught about suppressing her feelings for her patients, and she begins to carve out a new role for herself as a physician and as human being. Chen’s transfixing and beautiful rumination on how doctors negotiate the ineluctable fact of death becomes, in the end, a brilliant questioning of how we should live. Moving and provocative, motored equally by clinical expertise and extraordinary personal grace, this is a piercing and compassionate journey into the heart of a world that is hidden and yet touches all of our lives. A superb addition to the best medical literature of our time.