December 2009

Zoe Deleuil

nonfiction

Direct Red: A Surgeon's View of Her Life-or-Death Profession by Gabriel Weston

When surgeon Gabriel Weston gets dizzy from standing at an operating table for hours, she recites words to herself: Saffron. Tyrian purple. Direct red. These are the names of dyes used to stain tissue samples, and by silently repeating them she is able to stay focused. This affinity with words is apparent throughout her short memoir.

As a doctor, Weston is trained to wear a professional mask, and part of what makes Direct Red such a fascinating read is that you get a glimpse of the person behind it. To be a doctor is to be but a step away from making the wrong decision -- jeopardizing a patientís life and also oneís own career and reputation.† Weston admits, for example, that doctors can be attracted to their patients. To illustrate this point she relates her infatuation with a recuperating motorcyclist, "the spitting image of a young Marlon Brando," who invites her into his bed after a gruelling night shift. Her refusal is something she recalls in vivid detail.

The subject of professional territory makes for another riveting chapter, as she describes preparing a young woman for a double mastectomy under the scornful eyes of a more senior female surgeon. When Weston tentatively repeats the patientís request for a small mole to be preserved, her senior comments sweetly: "Are you sure youíre in the right business, darling? Youíd make a lovely GP."

She is also skillful at conveying the reality of surgery -- work that delivers its rewards in unexpected ways. For example, when opening up the stomach of a 20-year-old man with advanced bowel cancer she admits to wonder at "seeing the anatomy so perfectly displayed; I am used to beholding the visceral soup of the middle aged and unfit."

Her medical training gives her observations an unfamiliar slant, so that readers see things through the eyes of a doctor -- a manís face "has that pleasing segmented appearance that male faces do if they have not been ruined by booze," a back is "the childís effortless perpendicular." Itís full of fascinating bodily details, too -- for example, some surgeons believe that redheads bleed more, and attractive people often have "oddly shaped ears." Weston studied English before she entered medical school, and her prose is unadorned, and points to a career spent choosing words with tactful restraint. Yet she has a poetís eye, too, and in a few brief lines can describe a hospital scene with the crisp detail of a photograph -- the drama of the surgeon entering the theatre, the stillness of a young man with just hours to live.

She relates also the demands that a career in surgery make on a personís home life -- something she only realizes when she has a child. Her ambitions are suddenly challenged when she feels a strong maternal pull towards a sick baby on her ward round, rather than to her own child, who she sees for just one hour a day. The story concludes with her choice between professional surgery and time with her family.

This is not a book to read last thing at night. Her tales are confronting, and at the end you feel as if youíve been through a chaotic shift in accident and emergency yourself. But if youíre looking for a brisk, engaging story and an insight into the medical profession, this is ideal. "A surgeon knows when to cut, and importantly, when not to," writes Weston -- an adage that applies to writers, too. Westonís prose leaves the reader thinking she must be a pretty good surgeon.

Direct Red: A Surgeon's View of Her Life-or-Death Profession by Gabriel Weston
Harper
ISBN: 0061725404
224 Pages