This is an accessible, entertaining memoir of one brand-new doctor’s intern year at Columbia University Medical Center. It is rather light reading, but Dr. McCarthy proves a good storyteller, and for anyone who’s ever been a brand-new professional in over their head, it proves a fun (and sometimes wince-worthy) mix of relatability and schadenfreude.
The Real Doctor is the intimate, candid story of the author’s struggles, and sometimes successes, as a trainee doctor. He graduated from Harvard with lots of theoretical knowledge but virtually no practical know-how, to be thrown into the fast-paced world of the hospital, with regular emergencies, 30-hour shifts, and life-or-death decisions. McCarthy relates it all in a clean, fast-paced style that’s heavy on the dialogue; although he begins his tenure taking so many notes that a supervisor likens him to the character in Memento, it’s fair to assume that creative license is being used here.
He is frank about making mistakes, often feeling clueless and overwhelmed, and fumbling through tough interpersonal situations as he struggles to connect with patients without taking it all too personally. The immediacy of the writing pulls the reader right in, regardless of whether you’re in the medical field; I am not, but can relate to many of McCarthy’s feelings and experiences as a young professional, with lots of responsibility but little experience to draw on.
Much as I enjoyed the book, though, it is a bit light. McCarthy doesn’t attempt to provide background research or draw any broader conclusions about the medical field or American hospitals; the book is no more or less than an entertaining account of his personal experiences. Patient stories are included strictly for their effects on McCarthy, rather than being fully fleshed-out or used to educate readers about medical or cultural issues. (Fortunately, for squeamish readers like me, there are only one or two scenes likely to disturb.) For better or worse, it feels like a book written because the author’s friends enjoyed his stories and urged him to “write a book about that!” rather than because he had something powerful to say.
That, in addition to the satisfying but perhaps too-tidy ending, left me enjoying the book without feeling enriched by it. It’s a fast-paced account of hospital life, and a fun and honest piece about imposter syndrome and learning from experience, and as long as you aren’t looking for something deep or meaty, it is worth the read. If nothing else, hopefully it will make you feel a bit better about your own work (though not necessarily about being a patient)!