Sunday, August 5

Bodies - Jed Mercurio

Bodies opens with the unnamed protagonist approaching the busy London hospital on August 1st. It marks the beginning of his practicing medical career, and he is idealistic, full of optimism and excitement - the months ahead, he imagines, will be hard but rewarding, a steep but supported learning curve that will result in him becoming one of the good guys.
But between the stress of an unrelenting stream of sick and needy patients, unhelpful nurses, cynical superiors, a girlfriend who has no idea what he's dealing with every day, and the sheer weight of sixty-hour days (two and a half days on call), result in him losing his original perspective in only a matter of weeks. Perhaps most significant, he fails to diagnose a pulmonary embolism in a breathless woman who dies. His guilt is compounded by his superior covering up the event by 'buffing' the notes. Every time he closes his eyes he sees her, and the sequence of events constantly loops through his mind.
His only refuge from the death and illness and grime is a furtive, physical relationship with an engaged student nurse. He breaks off his relationship with his girlfriend, moves into hospital accommodation, and sinks ever further into the cynical and conspiratorial atmosphere that surrounds him.
I have never been so glad that I'm not a doctor (especially working in the NHS) as I was while reading this oppressive, grimy and compelling novel. Powerful and disturbing, Bodies is strongly reminiscent of Samuel Shem's The House of God, updated for a more modern age, but with grander themes and a great deal less humour. It examines some really important and frightening issues endemic in modern medicine. As Mercurio points out, it's easier and more comfortable for us all to think that medical mistakes are the result of incompetent or lazy doctors, a few bad apples, than that they're a product of a factory-oriented system that makes ludicrous demands on a vulnerable population and protects those least in need of protection.
Whistle-blowing is a persistent theme throughout the novel, with the focus being on the consequences to the blower rather than the blown (so to speak). As the protagonist notes, medicine's most renown whistle-blower (UK anaesthetist Stephen Bolsin, not named in the text) was unable to find work anywhere but Geelong in Australia.
Equal integral is the dehumanising process that long hours, inadequate support and unreasonable demands place on a group of people who are, at least predominantly, primarily motivated by the idea of helping people. Bodies is a graphic depiction of how easily deeply-held ideologies can be swayed, 'normalised' by the beliefs and behaviours of peers and superiors.
Bodies was turned into a BBC mini-series, and was penned by the writer of the UK series Cardiac Arrest, a hospital-based drama about as far from Grey's Anatomy as you can get! - Alex

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