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Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures: Book Review

abstract:The life of doctors and the medical profession has been a source of fascination to the general public for years as witnessed by the success of television series from "ER" and "House," going back to "Marcus Welby" and "Ben Casey." Doctors and nurses do consult on the sets to ensure authenticity, and sometimes they cross-over careers to become professional writers. Vincent Lam's first novel, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (Anchor Canada 2006) won Canada's most prestigious literary award -- the Giller Prize for this first work. It gives the raw and honest perspective of medical students and young physicians struggling with the demands of the profession in the Canadian healthcare system. Click on the title for the full article. This is Whistler Reads "January" book discussion: Spruce Grove Field House 7pm Jan 24th. WR partners with the Whistler Public Library


January 08, 2007

About the Author

Vincent Lam was born in London, Ontario and grew up in Ottawa. He is first generation Canadian whose Chinese parents immigrated from Vietnam. He acquiesced to his parents' wishes that he become "a doctor (or lawyer"). Sacrificing his own desire to become a writer, he labored through the hazing process that is medical school, and graduated with the credential "MD" (me doctor) from a Toronto area teaching program. He went on to do specialty training in emergency medicine and he also does international evaluation work.

Continuing to write in between the shifts of his "day-job", Lam serendipitously met renowned Canadian literary diva, Margaret Atwood on a north-bound ship in which he was employed as the ship's doctor and on which Atwood was traveling to do research for a new book. The two met, talked about writing, exchanged some of Vincent's work and then Atwood decided to introduce Vincent to her literary agent and publisher.

As a first-time author, to be nominated and then go on to win the Giller Prize is a remarkable thing. Of course it helps that both Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood -- both short story specialists -- were on the Giller Prize adjudicating panel.

The Stories

The book consists of twelve separate chapters that each tell stories involving one or more of the main four medical students featured in the book, and anecdotes from their formative training and subsequent careers after graduation.

"How to Get into Medical School," Parts I and II introduce Ming, Fitzgerald, Chen and Sri. The immigrant experience and cultural differences are factored into many of the stories, as each character faces medical-ethical and personal dilemmas.

In "Take All of Murphy" we are led through an anatomy disection group's various reactions as they dismantle a human corpse step-by-step.

In "Night Flight" a wife does everything she can to evacuate her husband out of a central american country when he first becomes confused and devolves into a cerebral hemhorrage that  she tries desperately to get the help he needs from locals and her own healthcare insurance system.

In "Winston" a medical student tries to ascertain the mental status of an outpatient in whom he suspects a psychotic diagnosis but must work within the fine lines between his suspicions, obtaining proof and maintaining the patient's individual rights before he declares himself a risk to himself or others. There is a three-way perspective of Winston's behavior described by his neighbors (non-medical laypersons) his professor , Winston himself, and the inexperienced medical student who is doing his psychiatric rotation.

Lots of cardiac arrests and "code" resuscitations later, the reader is faced with successive life and death situations which parallel the sense of un-relenting responsibility that the medical profession takes on and  how it affects their own lives. It is uniquely Canadian in its perspective, but it also contains universal dilemmas: facing death and disease, various forms of abuse, the good and bad in humanity and the imperfect systems we set-up to care and protect us.

Discussion Questions

  1. What differences did you find between this series of short stories and a typical novel treatment?
  1. The author himself is an Emergency Physician. There have only been a handful of doctors who have successfully made the transition to a career as a writer. Can you name some and speculate on how their medical background affects their writing and how Vincent’s work compares to those other authors?
  1. Some of our most significant relationships in life are formed with the people we meet during our post secondary education. Reflect on your own friendships and compare them to relationships of the med students in the anatomy dissection team/.
  1. Do you think any particular character from “Bloodletting” is most like the author himself?
  1. All of the medical students are first and second generation immigrants. Discuss how this has influenced each of them.
  1. Do the issues presented in “ER” “House” or going back to “Marcus Welby” and “Ben Casey” seem different or similar to the issues and subject and dilemmas that the author chose to present in this set of stories? How is healthcare evolving?
  1. As most of those shows are American productions – do you think there are any issues different between the two healthcare systems/experiences: public access, funding, quality of care, public expectation, legal liability and responsibility issues? 
  1. Now compare that to what Dr. Manolas’s expectations are in Mrs. Amiel’s husband’s case.
  1. Several moral dilemmas are presented to the various characters: Ming and the C-section without spinal anesthesia; Fitzgerald’s actions and interactions on the rescue flight of the stroke victim and his wife; Chen’s reaction to do CPR on Fitzgerald despite his prior expressed wish to the contrary; Dolores actions when she first suspects she may have contracted SARS.
  1. Some very private and intimate aspects of relationships are described in the book: how people face death, how people deal with mental illness, drug abuse & alcoholism, child abuse.
  1.  What did you think about the chapter “Eli” and the police brutality, and Dr. Fitzgerald’s actions before and after the patient bit him, the missing surgical instrument?
  1. Did you come away from reading this book with any different opinions?

Wine for our Whistler Reads event is sponsored by Dundarave Wine Cellar




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