The best books on medicine in the trenches

Who am I?

As the daughter of a surgeon and as a surgeon myself, medicine is in my blood. I understand that a job in medicine is never just a job. It’s a world filled with human beings in need of help, often in dire need. And the human connections that fulfill that need fuel the richest stories imaginable. That’s why there will always be a popular television series with a medical theme. It’s the same with books: the reservoir of compelling medical narratives is wide and deep. But tapping into this reservoir requires a certain skill. The writers I highlight here have this skill in spades. Enjoy!


I wrote...

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside

By Katrina Firlik,

Book cover of Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside

What is my book about?

Katrina Firlik is a neurosurgeon, one of only two hundred or so women among the alpha males who dominate this high-pressure, high-prestige medical specialty. She is also a superbly gifted writer–witty, insightful, at once deeply humane, and refreshingly wry. In this narrative, she draws on this rare combination to create a neurosurgeon’s Kitchen Confidential–a unique insider’s memoir of a fascinating profession.

Neurosurgeons are renowned for their big egos and aggressive self-confidence, and Dr. Firlik confirms that timidity is indeed rare in the field. “They’re the kids who never lost at musical chairs,” she writes. A brain surgeon is not only a highly trained scientist and clinician but also a mechanic who of necessity develops an intimate, hands-on familiarity with the gray matter inside our skulls. It’s the balance between cutting-edge medical technology and manual dexterity, between instinct and expertise, that is so appealing–and so difficult to master.

The books I picked & why

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An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales

By Oliver Sacks,

Book cover of An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales

Why this book?

Oliver Sacks is a legend, a physician-writer like no other. I could recommend any of his books, but An Anthropologist on Mars is a fun place to start. It’s a collection of seven narratives about patients with a diversity of neurological conditions. Most notable, though, are Sacks’ methods, akin to an anthropologist engaging in field research. He explains, “The exploration of deeply altered selves and worlds is not one that can be fully made in a consulting room or office…With this in mind, I have taken off my white coat, deserted, by and large, the hospitals where I have spent the last twenty-five years, to explore my subjects’ lives as they live in the real world…”.


Letters to a Young Doctor

By Richard Selzer,

Book cover of Letters to a Young Doctor

Why this book?

Richard Selzer is perhaps my favorite surgeon-author. As a college student reading his beautiful—and sometimes ornate bordering on romantic—writing, I enjoyed having a glimpse into not only what a surgeon does but, more importantly, what a surgeon feels. Start by reading the first story in this collection, “Imelda,” about a young girl in Honduras with a cleft lip and palate. It gives me chills every time. If you think surgeons are unfeeling, read any of Selzer’s stories and think again. They are like love letters to the profession.


This Won't Hurt a Bit: (And Other White Lies): My Education in Medicine and Motherhood

By Michelle Au, MD,

Book cover of This Won't Hurt a Bit: (And Other White Lies): My Education in Medicine and Motherhood

Why this book?

There are plenty of books out there about the experience of going through a medical education and training but I found Michelle Au’s account to be particularly funny and insightful. It also focuses on a most important angle: becoming not only a physician but also a parent. Dr. Au had her first child early on during her residency in anesthesiology at Columbia. I have followed Dr. Au’s career with interest as she recently became a state senator in Georgia while her family has grown to three children. She is proof that a medical background combined with an ability to communicate well can be a powerful combination.


Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

By Henry Marsh,

Book cover of Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

Why this book?

Henry Marsh, similar to Richard Selzer, is another rare example of a senior surgeon with an amazing ability to recount both the outer and inner life of a surgeon. Marsh is a British neurosurgeon with a long career full of remarkable stories, and Do No Harm focuses a lens in particular on what can go wrong, along with the physical and emotional repercussions. It’s a very honest and fascinating narrative that should be required reading for all medical students, not only for those contemplating neurosurgery.


A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back

By Kevin Hazzard,

Book cover of A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back

Why this book?

When people credit doctors for “saving a life” in an emergency, they sometimes overlook the role that EMTs, or paramedics, play in that great save. After Kevin Hazzard’s book, you’ll realize just how important they are to the healthcare equation. His book is the first I had ever read that was written by a paramedic, and his account is both refreshing and disturbing. He is insanely skilled at describing the details. And, along with the best of the medical nonfiction genre, he artfully blends what is most meaningful, terrifying, and humorous about the profession. It’s a fun one.


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