Posted on | January 31, 2010 | 7 Comments
With a single exception they were all white. And with five exceptions, all male.
Doctors follows the Harvard Medical School’s Class of 1962 through the hell of medical school, fatigue of the internship and residency, and battles as doctors once they’ve chosen their speciality. Not only does it focus on the professional demands of medicine, but also on the life and loves of the graduates.
It seems as though the book spans multiple eras, from the Spanish Civil War, to World War II, to Vietnam; from a time when women, Jews and blacks were discriminated against, to Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech; from the time when doctors worried more about the legal consequences of their actions before helping a dying patient to – well, some things never change.
The central characters of the book are the two best friends from Brooklyn: Laura and Barney. Both follow their dreams of becoming doctors for different reasons: for Laura, it’s survivor’s guilt; for Barney, it’s having a father figure in Laura’s father, as his own father was away at war for most of his childhood. The first chunk of the book revolves around the two families, before the curtains open for the reader to be introduced to various other characters: Bennett Landsmann, a black aspiring surgeon whose parents are Holocaust survivors; Seth Lazarus, a brilliant student who hates watching patients suffer more than anything else; and Peter Wyman, an obnoxious intelligent doctor, whose ambition is to be simply the best. There are many more characters, but, I think those three were the most powerful.
In their years at Harvard, the class sees their fellow classmates attempt suicide (and in some cases, succeed), pop pills, or be addicted to some caffeine source or the other. They dissect their first cadaver, open up breathing dogs, and need to know the names of all the bacteria that exist on the teeth! Yet, taking a step back from medicine, there’s the Malpractice Cup: a basketball game between the Law School and the Medical School; facing family problems like their mother turning into a lay sister and the father going to Cuba as Castro’s got the right idea; falling in love and moving on.
When they move on to the real world, things get more complicated. Identity crises, relationships souring over the demands of their chosen profession, moral dilemmas over euthanasia take center-stage (and the courtroom), one of the doctors is unable to continue in his stream due to no fault of his, but through it all, their friendships stay tight: Barney and Laura; Barney and Bennett; Laura and Grete. And when push comes to shove, the most unlikely of the classmates comes through as well.
The ordinary person worships doctors as if they’re gods; if not gods, at least super-humans. However, this book is an insight into how flawed doctors are as people (almost each of them was talking to a shrink by the end of the book), and the kind of things that drive them, and the kind of things that break them. It’s funny in bits, heartbreaking in others and Erich Segal does a wonderful job of bringing the emotions and characters to life, such that you feel like you’ve known them (and liked them… or disliked them) forever.