Jed Mercurio’s Bodies is a beast of a book, slamming the UK health services by exposing the inadequacies of young doctors, the corruption of senior members of the medical community and the overall cynicism that lives and breathes within the sterile walls of so many public hospitals. A minor success in the UK upon its release last year, and freshly out in Australia, the book is a dirty, depressing look at life on the wards. According to Mercurio, the safety and security represented by the giant red cross on hospital entrances is an illusion. In reality, hospitals full of blunders and cover-ups—just like any other business.
Mercurio’s nameless narrator—the book draws upon Mercurio’s own experiences as a young doctor, making it safe to assume there’s more than a little bit of the author in this Fight Club-esque first person portrayal—takes us on a somewhat catastrophic journey, from wide-eyed graduate on his first day, to a lonely and depressed wreck 18 months later. This rather swift downgrade comes courtesy of several botched jobs he encounters—including a couple he himself is responsible for—with medical mistakes swept under the rug and quickly forgotten. He can’t forget, though, and soon tears himself apart battling the bullshit while attempting to uphold the Hippocratic Oath—even if no one else will.
This glimpse into the medical profession is as enlightening, as it is horrific. The very notion that doctors could be in the slightest bit fallible is surely much harder to accept than the plumber who arrives late and botches the dunny repair. Many of us just accept on its face that doctors are angels on Earth, perfectly capable of helping us when in need. From the outset, it becomes obvious that Mercurio’s main objective is to blow a big, fat hole in the E.R.-inspired non-reality that hospitals are dens of comfort and that all doctors are hunky heroes whose only weaknesses are pretty ladies or their own sense that they’re not quite heroic enough.
I flick to a hospital soap in which the staff all have time to hold patients’ hands and the nurses are matriarchal and the doctors patriarchal and none of them ever fucks up . . . Our public services are failing while television plays hour after hour of incorruptible policemen catching criminals, of crusading lawyers keeping the innocent out of prison, of streetwise social workers rescuing children from abuse, of heroic doctors sticking needles in tension pneumos . . . I’m flicking between the real world and the drama of reassurance and I feel like I’m the only person watching who recognises the mendacity, sees it clear enough to want to kick in the TV screen.
It’s not only TV, though, that deifies the medical profession in such a way. From childhood, we’re taught that it’s proper to aspire to be a doctor or a lawyer; these are the good jobs, the jobs that pay well with instant social standing. We’re also taught to listen to doctors, believe in them. After all, a doctor would never make a mistake, right? Doctors are never wrong—they’re not allowed to be. They don’t miss major signs of a pulmonary embolism, they don’t shatter nerve endings when snapping breaks into place, they don’t misdiagnose, they don’t rush tests. If they did, would there be any place left on Earth where we would feel safe as human beings?
With Bodies, Mercurio attempts many things. First, he’s opening the hospital doors to any John Q. Patient who might want to know just what they’re letting themselves in for when hitting that gurney. He’s also making his former colleagues well aware that he knows what’s going on, and that many hospital policies are outdated or just plain wrong. And, he’s also letting us know that doctors make mistakes because they’re human, too, as unsettling as that may be.
That night I’m telling Rebecca about my night on call. We sit at a table by the window with a CD playing. I look at her and she’s a member of the public, a civilian, the kind who shoves a paramedic downstairs and slaps a doctor’s face and believes ones who make mistakes should be vilified. I want to retaliate so I say, “An old woman died in the ambulance before she even reached us.” Rebecca sips her juice but doesn’t look up from the dinner table.
Although this book is filled with such sentiments, Mercurio steers clear of tripping over his soapbox, managing instead to present his case via a fully-rounded character at odds with his own beliefs and his own goals. The author has been criticised among medical professionals for his audacity—deriding medical big cheeses without ever serving time as one himself—but, his goal isn’t to take these guys down as much as to shed light on the extremities of hospital life. It’s no picnic, and it’s certainly no fashion show of bold heroics and light romances.
Mercurio’s narrator—so very un-Clooney, with a job so hectic, he occasionally doesn’t even find time to wipe his own ass—takes us into a dark, often discouraging world of bodies, of numbers on charts, of diseases, breaks, bruises, panic and waste, and brings us out into the light knowing just a little better what it takes to be a life-saver, to be proved imperfect and judged accordingly.
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