An eye surgeon turned author, Manju Soni has written nonfiction for the Apeiron Review and other journals. Her debut short story, “The Game,” appears in the current issue of EQMM (January/February), in the Department of First Stories. It’s a tale that combines psychological suspense with a keen awareness of the drama of nature. In this post the author talks a little about how her two careers converge.—Janet Hutchings
It was ten o’clock in the morning and the sun was shining over the hospital gardens. The neurologist, a tall man with a receding hairline and a kindly face, approached the elderly man’s bedside. The man was not his patient, he had been asked to give a second opinion on the patient by a colleague. The senior nurse in charge of the ward, a stolid bundle of efficiency, ordered her junior nurses to draw the curtains as she scrambled to keep up with him.
The patient’s eyes were closed and he looked as if he was asleep, but he was in fact almost unconscious. His face was covered in a prickly grey stubble. He mumbled incoherently as the neurologist tried to rouse him. After he had examined the patient, the neurologist examined the CT scan and then the MRI and then the X-rays and then the twenty or so blood tests that had been done.
While he was reviewing the HIV test results, he glanced up to see the patient’s wife walking in. She was tall and well built, about seventy, the neurologist guessed. She was pretty and the turquoise saree suited her rather fair complexion, as did the large, red bindi (dot) on her forehead.
“Good morning,” he nodded briefly.
“Good morning Doctor. How is he doing?”
“I’m not sure exactly, it’s the first time I’m seeing him.” Of course he could have just said something like, “Slightly better,” but that was not him, he couldn’t lie as easily as some of his colleagues.
“Did the test results show anything?”
“Only that he has large hemorrhages on both sides of his brain. We can’t understand why he has these matching lesions. Can you please tell me exactly what happened.”
He sat her down on a chair next to the bed and pulled one up for himself.
“Start at the beginning please.”
He listened carefully as she described her husband’s mild dizziness in the morning, two days before.
“I thought it was due to his low blood sugar. He hadn’t eaten much the night before, and he had taken his sugar pill, and his baby aspirin.”
The doctor nodded.
“And then when he tried to get out of bed, he fell,” she said.
“He fell? And did he hurt himself?”
“Not really. He knocked his head against the bedside cabinet, that’s all.”
And with that, the mystery of the cause of the bilateral parietal lobe hemorrhages my father-in-law had suffered, was solved. The mild head injury combined with being on low-dose aspirin had most likely caused his bleeds. Sadly he died a year later.
Every patient has a story to tell, and every doctor becomes a repository of these stories. Doctors are uniquely privileged to be both observers and participants at the frontline between life and death, a zone where some of the greatest dramas and mysteries of the human experience unfold and reveal themselves, often to young, impressionable minds. Sometimes these stories cannot be contained and find their way out into the world, through the pen or a keyboard.
Often the stories are no longer than flash-fiction pieces. Like the time I, as a medical intern, was trying to complete my course requirement of delivering at least twenty babies. I was gloved and examining a young woman in advanced labor. I tried to assess how far dilated she was, when I felt the baby suck on my fingers! I was so startled and in fact terrified that I pulled my fingers out at lightening speed and stared at them to see if they were still intact. The nurses around me had a good laugh. The baby was a face presentation. Luckily the birth was uneventful, except for the baby’s bright red face, which matched mine.
Sometimes the stories are tragic, like physician Anton Chekhov’s story “Sleepy” about an exhausted teenage nanny who falls into that twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness while tending to her master’s son. I have no doubt the story is drawn from Chekhov’s own experience of late nights and lack of sleep as a doctor.
Sometimes the stories are well researched and beautifully written musings about history, life, and death, like physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s exquisite Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, or New Yorker writer and surgeon Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.
And at other times they are the author warning us about the possibilities of the uncontrolled commercialization of science. A classic example is physician Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park about uncontrolled genetic engineering, made so much more compelling because we see how easily it could be true.
Of course sometimes the stories are good rollicking fun. The inimitable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the uber-logical “consultant detective” Sherlock Holmes, ophthalmologist Robin Cook, the father of the medical-thriller genre, and physician Tess Gerritsen, one of the few women doctor-writers, are masters of the crime and suspense thriller, all of whom have delivered years of entertainment and vicarious fear to readers all over the world. Of course most of what they write would have Hippocrates turning in his grave.
I find myself writing not so much about my patients but about the brutal system of apartheid and its impact on them. Like my essay in TheEstablishment.com about a young patient who had visited a back-door abortionist, or the unpublished story about the elderly African man who had to travel hundreds of miles to have his cataract removed, and who was so happy to be able to see again he went home and returned with a cow as a gift for us. My other passion is psychological suspense, like my story, “The Game,” in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January 2017 issue, about a young woman who is pregnant with twins, trapped on an island during a storm.
But when all is said and done, what we doctors learn during our work is that when we humans are unclothed and dressed in those annoying butt-exposing hospital gowns, we are all, rich and poor, men and women, doctor and patient, the same. And this is often most poignantly captured by doctor-writers like neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who penned his beautiful memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, while being both a doctor and a patient undergoing chemotherapy for advanced lung cancer. He died at the age of thirty-seven. In an interview with NPR, his wife, Lucy, said, “He really returned to literature to cope.”
And, perhaps this is what so many of us do when we read.