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Book Review: Direct Red. It hits close to home.

September 22, 2009

Competing Interests: I got a free copy of this book in the mail in order to review it.

Direct Red is a charming and genuine description of the realities Gabriel Weston faced as a female surgical resident. Her tales are of a person who is just vulnerable enough to remain human, a characteristic not often ascribed to those in the surgical specialties.

If you can get past the overtly verbose first section and can handle skimming over some allusions that are a little too cerebral for the average (and non-British) brain, then you will find a gem – and it does become a short and easy read.

Weston writes what I wish I could. The adventures in medicine that she describes – whether totally fictious or too true – are common. The awkwardness, the embarrassment, the remorse, the fear of screwing up or of crossing the line: these are regular parts of any young physician’s rise to competency.

This collection lacks nothing in the way of authenticity; the candid explanations had me folding a few page corners, as if to say “this is exactly right.” For example, the way she describes “the migrainous glare of the room lights” in the Operating Room is bang-on. I can remember the number of times I’ve thought, “uh-oh, migraine city!,” when stepping into that cold light box, with its often acrid stench and pointy noises.

Her descriptions, though occasionally too meandering for my tastes (I find it hard to slog through Dickens), often give the perfect sense of the thing. The phenomenon she describes here – something I too had noticed during my time in the cadaver lab, but had until now only encoded as an image – could be put in no better words:

“When a bar of chocolate melts inside its wrapper and then gets hard again and you take the wrapper off, there are usually creases in the surface that recall its softer form. So it is with the embalmed human.”

I can identify completely with her perspective and the unsteady balance of decisive clinician vs. compassionate being, if not with most of her difficult encounters. Perhaps we are kindred spirits? Perhaps she is just saying the things we all want to say, but aren’t sure how to.  I know I felt just as much a fraud as she did,

“thinking I couldn’t believe that I was a doctor now and that I really didn’t know what I was meant to be doing.”

I remember times when I hoped my stethoscope would peek out of my bag, encouraging strangers to guess (even silently) the profession I was in. They probably all thought I was a nurse. Weston too wanted people to remark on her status.  While carrying a box of bones home via public transit, she explains:

“I wanted total strangers to invite me to reveal my occupational identity, I felt so excited to be doing this wonderful thing in my life . . . I was hoping a stranger would chat me up so I could divert his attention to my precious cargo. A middle-aged couple approached me instead . . . I moved swiftly from pleasantries to  the fact that I was a medical student to the proud proclamation that I was now the responsible guardian of a skeleton, real bones.”

You’ll have to see what trouble her proud ‘medical student’ status gets her into. And it’s well worth the read.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2009 10:11 am


    I would TOTALLY be bragging about a bag of bones on transit. Did you hear about when I got to draw real foot bones???

    Apparently Emily Carr has real human bones for anatomy drawing class left over from before plastic models came in.


    Also funny & curious how our very different occupations experience & view the human body.

  2. October 2, 2009 7:51 pm

    I liked this book a lot. And I agree-the book I wish I’d written.

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