Dr. Brendan Reilly creates a gripping memoir, One Doctor, by balancing several elements. As a hospitalist, a doctor working strictly with patients admitted to hospital, he details individual cases. At the same time, he reflects on how the cases affect him beyond the medical science involved. He struggles openly to strike a balance between caring attitude and doctorly objectivity. But where he’s clearly not objective is the slow downward slide his aging parents are experiencing. Reilly juggles the best he can, which works on some days. And not on others.

The patient cases he shares are complex, and often he and his team work overtime to fully diagnose the situation. Reilly is quick to credit his colleagues, while also giving riveting descriptions of the ways medicine does and doesn’t work effectively. When I think of young doctors learning their craft, I wish for teaching docs like Reilly to show them the ropes.

In every section or story, Reilly also reflects on how the U.S. medical system served or failed his patient. Sometimes he discusses how doctors are trained, and the way that affects patient care. He doesn’t hesitate to call out problematic processes, and offers his perspective on various options.

When discussing his parents, Reilly is all heart. His father is a retired, now-blind physician with cancer. His mother is declining into dementia. And it’s the busy doctoring son who’s their primary caregiver, trying to keep them relatively healthy and in their home as long as possible.

My conclusions

I finished this book a week ago, and I could start it all over again tomorrow. I loved the intense medical situations, and the intricate detail Reilly used to tell them. I learned things, but more importantly, I felt close to the patients and their families. While unique, the stories also had plenty of universal questions at their center.

Reilly believes that U.S. healthcare is too deep into specialist-only medical care. When people start to have medical diagnoses, they typically see only specialists. He believes that every patient needs one doctor (hence the book’s title) who oversees and coordinates their care. I completely agree, based on my own experience.

A book like this could be heavy, since it focuses on life or death situations. But Reilly manages to keep it light enough to balance the dark. His character descriptions sing with specifics, so I could picture people in my mind’s eye. And as he describes his Northeastern settings, he does more than simply set the stage. He transports his readers to that highway or hospital.

I hope doctors read this book. I also hope administrators and health insurance executives read it. I can dream, can’t I? No matter how we pay for health care, I like Reilly’s way of providing it.

Pair with No Apparent Distress by Rachel Pearson, M.D. and Elderhood by Louise Aronson, M.D.