Hours after Dr. Henry Marsh performed a life-saving brain surgery, he was calmly chatting with the patient in recovery…and then he was lunging at his nurse, screaming “I hate your guts” over the nurse’s refusal to remove a nasal tube. So goes the delicate balance Marsh has straddled his whole life: between humble workaholic and arrogant hothead.
An eminent British neuroscientist, Marsh’s second memoir, Admissions: Life As a Brain Surgeon, focuses on the time leading up to his retirement in 2015, as well as the months and years afterward, when he moved between a slow-paced life in Oxford and front-line work doing surgery in Nepal and the Ukraine. (Apparently you can’t just quit neurosurgery cold turkey.)
As he steps away from the career he’s cultivated for decades, Marsh begins to confront his own mortality, mentioning on the first page that he has a suicide kit at the ready. (In case he feels the creep of dementia or another terminal illness.) But he also explores the often conflicting personality traits that make for a good physician: One must be decisive but also thoughtful, sympathetic and deferential, yet realistic and self-assured. All this has lead Marsh to look back on his choices with a not-insignificant amount of regret. He acknowledges his short temper, the ways he neglected his family over the years and wonders if he should have gone a different route.
Especially timely are his musings on the state of global healthcare. He concedes that while the U.K.’s National Health Service is flawed (specifically its rapidly deteriorated funding), it’s far preferable to countries where healthcare is privatized, which Marsh says leads to overtreatment and dishonesty.
Admissions strikes the perfect balance between sociological, philosophical and voyeuristic. Read it because you care about what makes a good doctor but also to give yourself over to one man’s complicated and specific journey.