Diving into the lab

The DO Book Club, March 2023: “STIFF,” “Cutting Out” and “ADHD: Quick & Easy Guide”

In this humorously irreverent but never disrespectful work of creative nonfiction, Mary Roach dissects, if you will, the role cadavers have played throughout history.


Welcome back to The DO Book Club! For March, I am reviewing “STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” by Mary Roach, “Cutting Out: The Making and Unmaking of a Surgeon,” by James K. Weber and “ADHD: Quick & Easy Guide for the Stressed Parent of a Child with ADHD,” by Martin G. Meindl.

“STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” by Mary Roach; W.W. Norton & Co., (2003), 303 pp.

Quick—who was your significant other during the first few months of medical school?

If you named a spouse, fiancé or paramour, you might be wrong.

They are the quick, to be sure, but you probably spent more hours in the company of the dead at that time.

Cadaver dissection is one of the time-honored rituals in physician education, and it comes at you right out of the gate. Who among us can forget the anxiety of entering the anatomy lab for the first time? Along with your table partners, a once living human being becomes your new best, albeit deceased, friend. But how did your cadaver arrive on that steel stable, reeking of formalin?

In this humorously irreverent but never disrespectful work of creative nonfiction, Mary Roach dissects, if you will, the role cadavers have played throughout history. Her tone is playful and often rich in irony. Even the title is a sly joke—dead bodies have lives.

As a medical educator for more than 20 years, I have noticed that most medical students and post-grad trainees have a relatively poor grasp on the history of medicine beyond knowing that Hippocrates was Greek or maybe a Roman guy who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for doctors.

This book should be a companion read along with, “Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy,” and “Grant’s Dissector.” From a lively discussion of grave-robbing to practicing facelifts on detached heads, the book ranges far and wide. Yes, the author interviews morticians and attends post-mortem examinations, but there are gems of worthwhile knowledge for physicians in just about every chapter. The book predates the recent scandals carried out by unscrupulous undertakers, which is a bit of a shame, but most of what Roach covers remains vitally interesting.

A book about corpses? Ho-hum for a physician, you might say. But whether you’re decades removed from making your first slice with a scalpel or still trying to put a pin in the pterygopalatine fossa, the author’s research and her engaging style make this an enlivening read.

“Cutting Out: The Making and Unmaking of a Surgeon,” by James K. Weber, MD; Archway Press (2023), 419 pp.

For many of us of a certain age and specialty, a seminal book in our development was William Nolen’s, “The Making of a Surgeon,” published in 1970. I read it in high school, and if I said it didn’t ultimately influence my career choice, I’d be lying. So, Dr. Weber had me at the subtitle.

Reading this book was a bit of a crossover event for me—kind of like those intertwined TV shows like Chicago Med/Fire/PD or Law & Order episodes. I learned about the book from Dr. Weber himself after he read a repost of one of my retirement columns in The DO. But this isn’t really a book about surgery or retirement or, in my opinion, about an unmaking. It’s a story about the remaking of an accomplished practitioner by his own choice and by his own hand.

Jim Weber was for a long time a successful bariatric surgeon in the Pacific Northwest. And then he wasn’t. No legal drama, no career-cut-short by tragedy or illness. Just a realization that the demands and stresses of his chosen profession were wreaking havoc on his life and the decision to make a change.

The beauty of this book is in the eloquent descriptions and details of the lead-up to and the journey after his decision (so no spoilers from me). What he chose to do post-surgical career may surprise you. But maybe it won’t. Most of us love teaching and helping our fellow humans. Dr. Weber found a way to do both—without a drop of blood spilt.

The book is deftly written with elegant prose and the inclusion of apropos quotes. I read it in one sitting to write this review, but I recommend taking your time to savor and reflect on the different sections. Think of it like a pastry chef’s torte, rich and multi-layered, but not meant to be consumed all at once.

“ADHD: Quick & Easy Guide for the Stressed Parent of a Child with ADHD,” by Martin G. Meindl, DO; Outskirts Press (2022), 140 pp.

I remember rather clearly the lecture we got in med school, circa 1979, about hyperactivity disorder. I believe it was in neurophysiology, and what I gleaned from it at the time was that a drug called methylphenidate apparently made a bunch of haphazard multi-directional arrows on a drawing of the CNS to start pointing more or less in the same direction. And this was a good thing, we were told. I have to admit, with a nod to English recording artist Thomas Dolby, it pretty much blinded me with science. 

That’s how far we’ve come in just the arc of my medical career. Not that there aren’t miles to go before we sleep, but back then no one ever talked about spectrum disorders. Family doctors bore the brunt of evaluating and treating kids with a poor, if not completely misunderstood, clinical problem. They carried the double burden of trying to explain to bewildered and exasperated parents what might be going on and what might help get those errant arrows to start behaving.

Marty Meindl is a long-time pediatrician and a former colleague of mine who practices in northern Iowa, a large geographic area that didn’t have (and, to my knowledge, still doesn’t have) a local child neurologist with specialty training in spectrum disorders like ADHD.

There are a lot, and I do mean a lot, of books out there on ADHD aimed at clinicians, parents and caregivers. Most lean heavily to one side or the other—a bit too clinical or not quite clinical enough even for non-physicians.

Dr. Meindl has done an admirable job of finding the sweet spot with his book. As a physician, you can read it and you won’t feel talked down to; if you’re a parent or perhaps a grandparent of a child with ADHD, or even if you’re an adult or the partner of an adult with ADHD, there is valuable information in these pages.

Meindl doesn’t sugarcoat the diagnosis or its everyday and often exhausting challenges, but his tone is ultimately and resolutely reassuring. And as we all know, arrows or no arrows, a little reassurance goes a long way.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

The DO Book Club, Jan. 2023: ‘When We Do Harm,’ ‘Floating Feathers’ and ‘When Spirit Touches Matter’

The DO Book Club: ‘Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses’

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