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Life On The Ground Floor

abstract: Dr. James Maskalyk has written the most humane book of ABCs I have ever read. He uses his vast medical experience as a framework to navigate his reader through the alphabet of medicine: Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Drugs, etc.; all the while explaining the medical significance of each step. “A breath is not an idea, like the airway, something you don’t know is there until it’s gone. It’s the real thing, all action. Even during that flat pause between inhalation and exhalation, each cell is breathing. Your brain, your heart, each pore.” And yet, it is not the medicine that is enticing, it is the human stories that connect to each letter. It is the brief glance into his patients’ lives that makes the medicine real, makes it sing with story and truth; and occasionally makes me cry (perhaps because I’m a huge sap).

We meet the Toronto patients: the old confused man brought in from a nursing home, the worried mother with her sick son, the asthmatic man who has come in a dozen times struggling for air. A few letters later, Dr. Maskalyk travels to Ethiopia to support and teach the newly formed emergency medical team in Addis Ababa. We meet the Ethiopian patients: the man with the nose bleed that won’t stop, the girl in the oxygen mask, the girl hit by the lorry; and despite the language and culture barriers it becomes clear that people are people. The team at the hospital in Addis has neither the equipment, drugs, nor bed space that Toronto does, but medicine is medicine. The brave men and women training to be Ethiopia’s first ER doctors become heroes in my eyes as I watch them struggle against all the odds they are up against.

Beyond the medicine and patients, the reader is also shown the inner world of Dr. Maskalyk himself. We see the pain, the love and the struggles he endures as he navigates the ground floor of the emergency rooms around the world. We see him at his most vulnerable, not in the Toronto ER or in the streets of Addis, but in the third setting of the book: a remote cabin in Northern Alberta where Dr. Maskalyk spends time with his dying grandfather.


July 25, 2017
— Throughout the book, regardless of setting, the reader is moved by the amount of caring and humanity Dr. Maskalyk shows towards medicine, his patients, his fellow doctors and his family. “In the end, there is no way to save time, only good ways to spend it. Though seconds matter, if the schizophrenic man nods uncertainly at the follow-up appointment you’ve made, f*ck everything else, you need to call his mother, and if she’s not in, let it ring at the shelter. Or, rather, someone else does, because in those thirty seconds until someone hands you back the phone, you’ve looked again at the boy, breathing softly in his mother’s lap.”

This book is a well-written masterpiece and a really good read. If you would like to meet Dr. Maskalyk, Whistler Reads will be hosting him in October for a discussion of this book, as well as his first book “Six Months in Sudan.” Stay tuned for tickets to the event and a contest to win “Life on the Ground Floor”.

Leanna Hutchins is Program Administrator for Whistler Reads-a village-wide book group in Whistler, BC CANADA.



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