In When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery, Frank T. Vertosick, Jr., MD tells of his life as a neurosurgeon. Starting with the “grunt work” required of a med student who accidentally starts his clinical experience in neurosurgery, and ending with his own practice, Vertosick tells a great tale. And it’s all true.
It’s worth noting that most of the action takes place in the early 1980s, so it’s not reflective of neurosurgery today.
I listened to the audiobook, which is my favorite way to read a memoir. In this case, narrator Kirby Heyborne does a terrific job with all the medical terminology and even an accent or two.
Vertosick peppers his story with the dark humor of his fellow residents, from whom he learns important lessons like how and why to remain emotionally detached. But it’s the stories of the patients that touched my heart and gave me goosebumps.
In one particular case, a 69-year-old woman had been diagnosed with rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s and was being cared for in a nursing home. Turns out the correct diagnosis was a type of brain tumor. Vertosick tells of the surgeons’ decisions, as well as the family’s, that led to a resolution. I wonder how many elderly patients with dementia have an explanation such as this that’s never caught.
Another deeply affecting story is that of a young couple’s daughter who is gravely ill at birth. Vertosick shows his humanity time and again, but never more than in this story.
As a part of his training, Vertosick traveled to England and worked in a hospital there. The glimpse into different medical system was interesting, especially since the disadvantages were made abundantly clear.
Here in the U.S., we generally believe all surgeons are arrogant SOB’s. Vertosick’s book is proof that not all surgeons fit that mold. If you like memoir’s with a medical focus, this one is worth reading.