Welcome back to The DO Book Club!
For October, Joan Naidorf, DO, read “The Beauty in Breaking” by Michele Harper, MD. Dr. Naidorf is board-certified in emergency medicine and has practiced at community and military hospitals for over 25 years in Alexandria, Virginia.
If you’ve read this one, please share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you’d like to write a book review for a future month, please email Andy Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Beauty in Breaking” is the story of Dr. Harper’s journey toward self-healing as she embarks on a career in emergency medicine. It begins with an introduction to her dysfunctional family, her childhood of physical abuse and her inspiration for becoming an emergency physician. The completion of her emergency medicine residency in New York City coincides with the end of her marriage, which leaves her emotionally “broken.”
The ensuing chapters cover her move to Philadelphia to work as an attending physician and to heal the wounds in her personal life.
As an African-American female physician, she brings a unique perspective to her retellings of multiple patient encounters at various community, university and Veterans Administration hospitals. Each chapter highlights patients whose stories expose broader societal issues of systemic racism, sexism and child abuse.
Dr. Harper’s detailed case vignettes paint dramatic portraits of suffering and pain. Given the nature of episodic care delivered in the emergency department, some readers may yearn to know what finally happens to some of the characters but, as is often the case for emergency physicians, we will never know the outcomes.
The wonder of a shift in the emergency department is not just the variety of people and presentations we see, but the sheer improbability of life’s extremes occurring nearly simultaneously. Each patient teaches her something important about her own life.
Dr. Harper also struggles with the trials and tribulations of being a complex human being while trying to become a better physician. She still acutely feels the pain of a physically and emotionally abusive father, carrying scars well into her adulthood. As a resident, she suffers the end of a storybook marriage that she dreamed would someday bring her beautiful children. As an attending, she hesitantly forays into dating and love once again.
Ultimately, this is a story of Harper’s ability to forgive and recover, stronger each time, from wounds inflicted by her parents, her ex-husband, a system that promotes bureaucratic compliance and masculinity, and despairing patients bent on self-destruction.
Interesting tidbits for DOs
Osteopathic physicians reading the book will find a lot to identify with. Many of us have found ourselves in similar clinical situations and have butted our heads against stubborn rules and policies. We have held the hand of those who are dying. I trained in Philadelphia, probably in the very hospitals she cloaks in pseudonyms.
Many of us have trudged, physically and emotionally, through the long nights on call or in the overnight emergency department shift, just hoping that no new patients would come in during that last hour.
The author also adroitly shares the ache and empathy that she feels with each patient encounter.
Physicians are presumed to be objective, rational beings, able to easily detach as they guide patients and families through some of life’s most challenging moments. But doctors’ emotional responses to the life-and-death dramas of everyday practice have a profound impact on medical care.
Dr. Harper shows us that beyond their highly trained minds and methods, physicians have real and raw feelings.
Dr. Harper touches on the bias and racism that exist in our society and medical system through the story of a young Black male who was brought to the ER by police after his suspected ingestion of bagged drugs.
The patient refuses the exam and Dr. Harper refuses to comply with an officer’s request to examine him against his will. She pulls in several historical incidents of Black people and prison inmates being treated unfairly and inhumanely. Dr. Harper’s resident questions her, having seen other attendings comply in similar situations.
Dr. Harper writes:
“I sat still at my computer, attempting to … dampen my disgust and my anger mounted—anger that my resident, my highly privileged, highly educated white female resident, had felt comfortable being so disrespectful as to dismiss my judgment on this matter; that she felt she had the right to invoke what she deemed to be a higher authority: older white doctors who’d done the police’s bidding in the past or whatever voice happened to be on the other end of the line from Hospital Ethics.” (p. 108)
Using this anecdote, Dr. Harper speaks to larger issues of racism and patriarchy personally, expressing that she wishes the resident would have questioned the old guard’s approach that violated the patient’s autonomy, rather than questioning Dr. Harper’s own judgment.
Dr. Harper also grapples with never feeling satisfied by her romantic or professional life because she is a perfectionist. By reflecting on the lessons learned in the emergency department, she works through disappointment and disillusionment, ultimately choosing to keep pursuing what she wants out of life rather than wallow in what she doesn’t have.
“I knew that after letting go, there is forgiveness; after forgiveness, there is faith.” (p. 47)
Dr. Harper adds a fresh new addition to the crowded field of medical memoirs, attempting to cover a lot of ground on many current issues. She tackles these obstacles head-on, from how female doctors are mistreated to how she believes hospitals thwarted her promotions because she was both Black and female. She provides ample historical context for the systemic racism she sees in the emergency department.
The first step in addressing the many problems identified in the medical system is to first become aware of them. Dr. Harper’s first book is an admirable effort to open the eyes of her readers to the problems in medicine and to heal her own wounds.
For November, The DO Book Club will be reading On Immunity by Eula Biss. We encourage all who are interested to read along! If you are unable to get out to a local library or bookstore due to COVID-19, we recommend checking out eBook options for rent or purchase.
As a reminder, if you read “The Beauty in Breaking” or any previous Book Club selection and want your reflections to be shared in future posts, or want to write your own book review for a future month, please leave a comment below or email email@example.com.