BLOODLETTING & MIRACULOUS CURES by Vincent Lam (Anchor), 350 pages. $17.95 paper. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Writing about doctors and emer- gency rooms is kind of like writing about prison life or sexual abuse. You don't have to be that good a writer to make it work - there's such a raw sense of urgency in the situation alone that a series of simple, staccato, descriptive sentences can usually do the trick.
Vincent Lam has much more than that to offer in Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, his consistently compelling collection of stories on the Giller shortlist.
Through a series of related tales, we track four characters - Chen, Ming, Fitz and Sri - as they try to get into med school, succeed and then deal with the powerful pressures of working in life-and-death situations.
Lam, himself a doctor, does do the rat-a-tat style thing when it comes to dialogue in the ER, but the emotions are deep and the medical detail is always interesting. One fascinating feature - a definite sign of changing times - is how often the struggling students or interns encounter female authority figures who are either patronizing or too preoccupied with inconsequential things to do their jobs.
Many of the narratives convey how easily idealistic medical students can lose their illusions. A sensational story about the impact of SARS on the morale of hospital workers will change the way you read news of an impending epidemic.
By the end of the book, you can see why suicide and alcoholism rates are so high among doctors. That doesn't mean it's a grim ride, but it may make you think twice about going to medical school.