Why do I read so many memoirs? Is it because I'm so bored with my own life? Do I just have a voyeuristic tendency to dig into the lives of others? I don't know, but since I bought another one today, I'm just going to admit my powerlessness over the memoir and give it up to a higher power.
In the case of Intern, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar's account of his internship and residency in a New York hospital, I was drawn because I have a mild obsession with medicine. I was supposed to be a doctor when I grew up. Throughout my entire childhood I was fascinated by the human body and the way it works. Every year, while making my Christmas list from the Sears Wish Book (do y'all remember the Wish Book?) I asked for the anatomical model with the removable organs; I never got it. Maybe I should tell my mother that's the reason I never followed through. The model would have made all the difference! Anyway, when I got to high school and it was time to pick a college and a major, I set my sights on the Physican Assistant program at a local university and applied to a couple of premed programs for backup. I got into the highly competitive PA program (one of only 40 accepted, whoot!) and promptly failed out after one year, not because I wasn't any good at it, but because I was 17 years old and no one in their right minds sends a 17 year old off to live in a dorm and expects her to actually, I don't know, go to class instead of spending her nights doing beer bongs and hanging out with fraternity boys. I spent the next couple of years at community college, acing my way through biology, anatomy and physiology, microbiology and medical terminology courses, but then I got lazy and bored and said, "Fuck it, I want to get an English degree instead." Don't think that I don't kick my own ass for that at least three times a week.
Anyway. Jauhar, the youngest son of Indian immigrants (his family came to the United States when he was a small child) took a circuitous route to medicine - he originally earned his Ph.D. in physics at Berkeley. His older brother Rajiv followed the family dream into a career in cardiology, and after a few years screwing around with quantum dots, whatever they are - physics were not a requirement for my PA program so I took anatomy and physiology in high school instead, and dissected a cat - Jauhar decides that he needs to do something meaningful with his life. A great part of his decision to go to medical school is tinged with jealousy of his brother and the respect and praise that Rajiv receives from their parents, who see Sandeep's little foray into academia as foolish and immature. After fast-tracking through Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, Jauhar packs up and heads out to New York Hospital to begin the three years of boot camp known as medical residency.
Jauhar does a very good job of describing his feelings of inadequacy, fear, and self-doubt as he is plunged into a reality for which no amount of reading and studying can prepare a person. Surrounded by the sick and dying, he sometimes wonders if doctors do more harm than good. He exposes the God complexes of the attendings, the futility of treating patients who seem to fight the men and women charged with treating them at every turn, and the overwhelming exhaustion of trying to be in several places at once without really knowing what he's doing in any of them. It's an interesting take on a place that is a mystery to many; unless either you or a family member has spent any length of time in a hospital (I myself went through it last summer when my grandmother was hospitalized for several weeks following an intracranial hemhorrage, or brain bleed) most of us have vague notions regarding how hospitals and doctors function, based mainly on shows like "ER," "House" or "Grey's Anatomy." Jauhar fleshes out the experience from the other side, showing what it's like to be the person responsible for those bodies in the beds, hooked up to wires and tubes and machines.
At times the narrative is bogged down by too much backstory; my real interest was in the patients and the medicine. In the course of his first year, his internship, Jauhar meets a fellow medical student who would become his wife less than a year later and does a mostly seamless job of integrating that subplot. He also hammers again and again at his sense of inadequacy next to his older brother, a cardiologist in the same hospital, and at times it gets tiring. We get it, your brother is a golden boy and you're in his shadow. He also explores the ethics involved in treatment, and in trying to find the line between helping a patient and causing more damage. It's an important point, but I just don't know if Jauhar has a hard time expressing his feelings on the subject or if, writing this book ten years later, his memories and feelings have blurred and merged in the ensuing decade, because those passages can be somewhat unwieldy and confusing. Granted, that could also be my interpretation of something that is really more of a moral issue and colored by my personal opinions and experiences.
Overall, I found Intern to be an enjoyable and informative read. Most people look at doctors and think, "Well, they must know what they're doing; we let them poke needles in our arms and shine lights in our eyes and stick us in radioactive machines and cut open our chests." The truth is that a white coat doesn't make you God; it just means you have a really good aptitude for memorization. Some doctors take that knowledge and try to do good, while others use it to lord over other people and look for glory. Jauhar does a standout job of giving civilians a peek behind the curtain and showing his readers that there is no great and powerful Oz; it's just a man who knows more than you do about something.