The doctor finishes his examination. There you sit, half-dressed, awaiting his pronouncement on the state of your health. He turns and scribbles at length on a note pad. "My God," you think, "what's taking so long? What's the matter with me?" Not to worry. Odds are that he's merely making notes for his novel.
These days, the loudest cries of "Is there a doctor in the house?" are emanating from acquisitions editors at publishing houses. "Med-Lit" has arrived with a vengeance this spring. Herewith, a no-charge diagnosis of three examples.
"Trauma" is a collaboration between a doctor and a newspaper editor, and one can almost imagine the two of them dreaming up the project on the golf course. The plot has a heavy-handed, made-for-television-movie feel to it. The writing, though, is crisp and efficient, and the operating room scenes pulse with authenticity. "Trauma's" problems begin when the characters leave the hospital.
The book opens in the emergency room of Coit Hill Memorial Medical Center in San Francisco. Dr. Alan Kirk, battling incredible staff incompetency and bureaucratic snafus, vainly tries to save the life of an injured motorcyclist. Convinced that the young man died needlessly, Kirk becomes obsessed with the idea of creating a single, well-equipped trauma center for the city, eliminating the sometimes deadly competition among hospitals for accident victims. He is opposed by the villainous Albert Anthony, administrator of Coit Hill, a man more concerned with profits than saving lives.
Kirk, with the help of a plucky female researcher (Do they fall in love? You bet.) and a (Surprise!) courageous newspaper reporter, gets the job done, as we knew he would. And that's the problem with "Trauma." Despite raising some valid issues concerning trauma room procedures, the plot is as dog-eared as a waiting-room copy of National Geographic.
Priscilla Scherer's "Half Life," on the other hand, is a quirky and oddly appealing book, despite an often awkward prose style. Scherer gives a convincing nurse's-eye view of a hospital neurology ward. The book's title refers to the patients who are comatose -- brain damaged with little chance of recovery, and dependent upon machines to keep them breathing. Neurology nurse Lydia Weber is chosen to assist Dr. Sam Wheeler in his research with a drug that offers some hope of restimulating brain function in these patients. The hitch is that the drug could kill them. Since some patients, often the least likely, recover spontaneously, the researchers must make the difficult decision as to which patients will be used as human guinea pigs.
Tempted by potential fame, and prodded by his glory-seeking department chief, Wheeler begins to become less discriminating in his use of the drug. Nurse Weber is caught between her scruples and her growing love for the married doctor. Though occasionally treacly, Scherer's handling of their inevitable affair contains enough edgy details to make it believable. But "Half Life's" real power comes from its unrelenting hospital realism, and the sardonic, almost "M*A*S*H"-like dialogue of the nurses.
Light years away from the true grit of "Half Life" and the plodding ordinariness of "Trauma," is "Seven North," by Chevy Chase's own Dr. Neil Ravin. Ravin is a writer who happens to be a doctor and therein lies the difference. This is thoroughly professional, if blatantly commercial, novel writing. There is a snazzy doctor/detective hero, a sexy and mysterious love interest, lots of interesting minor characters and a satisfyingly complicated plot. Best of all for local readers is the fact that the novel is set in Washington. As Dr. Ben Abrams tools down Wilson Boulevard into "Little Saigon," or meets someone at Afterwords near Dupont Circle, we are spared having to imagine the scene. We've been there.
Ravin is not William Carlos Williams. Despite a tie-in to Vietnam and the local Vietnamese colony, this is for the most part frothy, escapist fare. Abrams is sort of a medical Travis McGee -- cynically witty and thoroughly amoral. (He hops into bed with two of his patients.) He confirms what many of us have suspected (and feared) about certain doctors. Witness the following dialogue between Abrams and his girlfriend:
"Must be hard to practice medicine when you hold such a high opinion of humanity."
"Money eases the pain."
"Simple sequence: stubbed toe, call doctor, pained doctor, patient better, doctor bills patient, doctor better."
You want entertainment, take "Seven North" along with you to the beach as insurance against a rainy day. You want realistic and engrossing hospital drama, check out "Half Life." You want trauma, spend $15.95 for "Trauma." At least, that's my evaluation. You are, of course, free to seek a second opinion.