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5 Books to Read in Medical School

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Never has there been a worse time to read for pleasure. The infinite requirements of medical school prompt us to spend more time on Anki and UpToDate than to pick up a book. A powerful novel or memoir, however, can have more of an impact on our training than any class or lecture. Despite the commitment of med school, there are still bits and pieces of time in the first three years that allow for indulgence. For those who enjoy reading, here are five books worth picking up in medical school.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Dr. Kalanithi wrote this book after he learned that he was dying of lung cancer, a seemingly cruel and random diagnosis at the age of 35. He reflects on life and his medical training, an experience that consumed him as it is consuming many of us now. Confronted with death, he has to make each decision with the knowledge that it may be his last. Should he and his wife have a child? Should he push himself to finish training? Move to Wisconsin for a job? Dr. Kalanithi draws on his literary background to write poignantly about the transition from physician to patient and how learning to die has reinforced his passion for medicine. He speaks from the perspective of a resident, someone not so different from ourselves, making this memoir a now classic in the medical school repertoire.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Dr. Marsh, a retired British neurosurgeon, writes crisp, honest prose about his meandering path to surgery. He reflects on difficult cases, ethical dilemmas, and most importantly, on medical errors he made and witnessed during his career. His memoir confirms what we already know but have not yet confronted as medical students: that there are limits to medicine and that much of patient care is out of our control. Many of us will enter specialties that deal with life and death. More than once, we will feel as if these choices are in our hands. Dr. Marsh’s memoir reminds us of the balance between skill and luck that plays into each patient’s life and each physician’s successes and failures. His stories will both reassure and dishearten. For a patient, it is frightening to think of our doctors as fallible. For a doctor, it is reassuring to be reminded that we are only human after all.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

During one of my rotations in medical school, I had a resident who would cut me off during presentations and stand in front of me during rounds. He was kind and patient in other ways, but every morning he symbolically and literally excluded me from the group. I couldn’t help but notice that this never happened to the male medical student on the team. I felt almost sure that the resident didn’t realize what he was doing, but I never found the courage to speak up. These small, mundane occurrences are remnants of a hierarchical, male-dominated field. As we move forward in our training, it will be up to us to shape the culture of medicine. Sheryl Sandberg’s book can teach us how. Lean In is not just a guide on how to find mentors or ask for feedback; it is also a manifesto that shows men and women how to empower themselves and each other. Everyone is biased, she writes. We should discuss it rather than get defensive. “We cannot change what we are unaware of. And once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

The House of God by Samuel Shem

Published in 1978, this book offers a cynical glimpse into the old ways of medicine. Dr. Shem chronicles his life as a medical intern in Boston, where he starts the year fresh and excited. With each passing month, he is pummeled by the cruel realizations of medicine’s underbelly: the fact that kind, young patients may die while older folks who are ready to go will not. The idea that doing something, whether a treatment or a work-up, may hurt your patient more than doing nothing at all. The House of God is one-of-a-kind funny but also a stark reminder that we will see friends and possibly ourselves struggle tremendously with the demands of residency. Shem’s “rules” of residency look ludicrous on the page but will resonate with every medical student. Read this at least once after your third-year rotations. The strange, gray areas of medicine you have experienced will wade to the top of your mind.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Fiction may be one of the best ways to help us understand our patients’ diverse lives. Viet Thanh Nguyen, known for his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sympathizer, debuted this short story collection in 2017. The book features different immigrants’ stories, and some vignettes take on a medical twist. In “The Transplant,” a man accidentally finds out who donated his liver and now feels indebted to the life-saving gift. In “I’d Love You to Want Me,” a woman cares for her aging husband, a man with Alzheimer’s who starts to refer to her by another woman’s name as he deteriorates. The Refugees explores the unique immigrant experience in which a person’s identity is strewn across multiple times and places. Add a medically tinged plot, and it is easy to imagine any character as our own patient.

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