22 February 2011
Bit Players (originally posted 27 January 2011 on Tumblr)
At the end of Back to the Future, Marty’s father receives a package that contains his first published book. The family gathers around him as he inspects it, oozing happiness and pride as if from his pores. They beam at him and the message I took home from this moment of wholehearted content was that if a slightly peculiar scientist invents a time machine – thereby allowing you to move freely through the space-time continuum and change the stream of events that make up your life – then the pinnacle of success, the absolute embodiment of happiness is found in a book.
When I was writing about my residency experiences I certainly hoped they would someday be published. And when the manuscript was picked up by Free Press I was excited, certainly, but my exhilaration was tempered by a healthy amount of disbelief. It did not seem real. I had written a manuscript before, a novel, while living in England and searching for a husband. All told I had spent six years writing and reading and (of course) becoming a doctor and all I had to show for it was some American guy I had picked up over lunch in the Crooked Tea House and gotten hitched to and had a baby with and a dog and two cats and a sizeable mortgage. But I did not have a book. Then months passed and years and the manuscript was edited and sent to the copyeditors and still it seemed entirely improbable that I would ever reach the time when the book would be in my hands.
This week was the week that it finally happened. And while my mother made a fuss over delivering the package to me from the front door and then cried a little while she looked at it, I have to admit to being somewhat underwhelmed. There was the matter of the dog barking and the baby singing softly to herself over the monitor while she napped in her room upstairs. There was also the fact that the week had been a busy one, filled with the sort of ridiculousness that occurs when other people’s lives smash precipitously into your own and over which you have absolutely no control. But that was not the real issue. Might it simply be that reality never lives up to your dream of it, a given since none of us actually has aDeLorean to take us whizzing back to 1955? Tempting, but I didn’t think so. Now I have spent some time assessing the situation and I believe I have figured it out.
The book is not really mine.
I am incredibly proud of it and yes I wrote it, sure, but the book I was holding in my hands was not my work alone but the work of a variety of people, many of whom I have never met. So that moment of complete ownership that shone from George McFly’s eyes as he passed a hand over the spine of A Match Made in Spacecould never be mine. And it shouldn’t be. I work in a field where we rely on each other. There is a clichéd picture of doctors coasting down hallways and into and out of patient rooms, their white coats flapping behind them, immersed in discussion with the other members of their team with whom they are rounding. To either side of their cohort nurses check medications out of the Pyxis, techs restock shelves, orderlies empty bedpans, and clowns (I work in a Children’s Hospital, remember) pull bouquets of flowers out of thin air. The physicians keep their heads down slightly and their eyes either on the floor or else on each other. They speak quietly about confidential matters or about what they had eaten for breakfast – this part doesn’t matter, the point is that they do not engage in the steady bustle of activity around them, are oblivious of it even.
There are certainly some physicians who practice this way, who expect the orders they write to be performed without question and without acknowledging the person whose job it will be to place that IV or wheel their patient down to CT. That is, after all, how hospitals work. But it is not the way I work. Maybe it will be someday, when I stop covering the gray in my hair and when parents stop asking me if I am old enough to be practicing medicine. But I hope not.
So thank you to Jen and Terri and Brent and Winston and Erin for getting me through my shift last night.
And thank you to Leah and Meredith and Charlotte and Meredith (yes, that’s on purpose) and the rest of the people at Free Press for helping to bring this book, our book, to life. Your support and integrity has been inspiring. I think the next book might just be about all of you.