Author: David Gelber, MD

Publisher: Ruffian Press. 187 pages

Book Review by Nano Khilnani

I revere surgeons as almost superhuman beings. They go through four years of college, likely another four more years of medical school, two years of internship, and probably another two to four years of residency. But the learning never stops – with reading medical journals, attending medical conferences and conventions and daily practice that reveals cases with new twists to the diseases and organ malfunctions. Keeping constantly updated on the latest developments in their medical specialty is a never-ending part of a surgeon’s life.

I also regard them as the closest link to God for humans (besides religious persons)  because it is their knowledge and experience acquired over many years, their discipline and work ethic and dedication to their patients that enable them to keep us alive and avoid death. What else could be a nobler line of work? That is why I wanted to be a doctor when I was in high school. But somehow my life took a different turn, and I turned out becoming a writer.

I suppose it does not only take a surgeon way-above-average intellectual capacity to keep learning from new cases, but also an unusually large-range emotional makeup that can withstand tremendous psychological highs and lows and stress on a daily basis. Saving a life gives ineffable satisfaction, but losing even one, after much effort trying to save it, can and does give doctors much sadness and disappointment.

In this one-of-a-kind book, Dr. David Gelber takes us to the daily medical trauma and drama in hospitals that he has experienced over two decades. More than that, he tells us what goes on in his mind before, during and after an operation, something I have often wondered about, but have never found in any book. I had supposed that surgeons eventually “get used to it” – being on the emotional roller coaster. But that is not the case at all, Dr. Gelber points out.

Many decisions are not easy, we learn from this book. And the split-second decisions while performing surgery can save or kill a patient. It gets better with more knowledge and practice, so there is more hope the next time around. On this matter, throughout the book, he gives examples of how surgical procedures were performed in the old days and how much more effective and less painful to the patient newer procedures have become, with more lives having been saved. And with oncoming innovations and newer tools and equipment it will only get better in the years ahead.

“The operation was a success but the patient died,” is a chapter in this book that I first turned to, as I have often wondered what happened that led to the patient’s death, what was missed in the doctor’s initial diagnosis, what complications arose post-surgery, and was infection a factor in the post-operative stage.

Another interesting chapter is “The Middle of the Night.” Dr. Gelber says that medical students who opt to become surgeons know that getting up in the middle of the night to take care of emergency situations is a must – they cannot avoid it. If they do not want to interrupt their sleep, they can elect to get into dermatology or radiology or some other specialty that rarely requires middle-of-the-night care.

Dr. Gelber shows us in his book that patients, more than life, are full of surprises.

He cites for example the case of an 80-year old woman who had gallbladder disease. She went through an “uneventful surgery,” and was sent home. But some months later she returned sicker than before.

She was found to have a blockage in her small intestine. It turned out she had an unusual widespread cancer that was incurable. She developed that life-stealing disease from a tumor in her small intestine. Nothing could be done to save her. Chemotherapy was offered to slow the cancer from developing further, but it was declined.

Not being able to help all patients is certainly one of the frustrations of a surgeon. But being able to save many lives is the best reward, I feel, for these compassionate healers, a group that Dr. Gelber belongs to. And he has done a truly heart-warming job of telling us how it really is like to be a surgeon, in this excellent book. A book review like this one does not do enough justice to this great book. Nothing is better than reading it. Go buy and read this unique book.