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Books: A Glimpse into Surgeons' Lives

The art of writing is as much about the intricate shifting, removing and replacing of ideas as surgery is about making the slightest of maneuvers to save lives.

The main difference being, of course, that the outcome of surgery is a bit more weighty.

Well, relatively speaking.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s renowned chief medical correspondent, tackles the world of fiction with his latest book, Monday Mornings, but despite his high-profile, high-intensity day jobs (he is a practicing neurosurgeon at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital), it’s clear he treats the novel’s narration with as much reverence as any physical body laid out before him on the operating table.

The novel, about fictional hospital Chelsea General, revolves around the lives of five doctors -- all with different backstories and personalities, and all at varying stages of their lives and careers.

The main characters -- Dr. George Villanueva, Dr. Tina Ridgway, Dr. Sung Park, Dr. Ty Wilson and Dr. Sidney Saxena -- deal with their respective issues with the kind of suppressed internal struggles that are just ripe for cinematic drama.

There are interoffice romances, shocking diagnoses, familial strife and, of course, office politics, all cleverly held together by the hospital’s Morbidity and Mortality meetings (otherwise referred to as M&M), where various doctors step forward to own up to their professional shortcomings.

If the premise sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Television shows like “ER” and “Grey’s Anatomy” have made would-be medical procedurals more about longing looks and meaningful silences than about the actual surgeries or ailments themselves. Gupta’s own invented hospital is no different.

Not to say that Gupta’s vast knowledge from the operating room is absent from his writing, because even skimming the book’s quick 290 pages reveals a plethora of medical terminology.

Carbonic anhydrase inhibitors.

A classic glioblastoma multiforme.

Deep brain stimulation.

The only problem is that Gupta’s vast knowledge from the surgery room more readily translates into successful nonfiction books, like his earlier works, Chasing Life and Cheating Death (about longevity and medical miracles, respectively).

        Photo of Dr. Sanjay Gupta courtesy of CNN

But in trying to adapt the fast-paced, high-stakes realm of the medical world into a fiction endeavor, Gupta has had to squeeze a number of rather big-ticket events into a small period of time, which can make the narrative come off as a bit forced occasionally -- even if the daily chaos is only a slight exaggeration.

What is the likelihood, for example, of a resident having her license revoked, a racist patient threatening staff members and the chairman of surgery operating on one of his own doctors, all in the span of a few weeks? Probably more common than the average reader would suppose, but still jarring enough to seem melodramatic at times.

The danger of writing any story that follows several narratives at once is that the author risks his work coming off as a bit too contrived, storylines stilted in their natural progressions. So in the end, it’s hard to fault Gupta for the few moments when his writing does come off this way, trying too hard to intertwine the five doctors’ lives and tie each chapter off with a cliffhanger as though the narrative were going to commercial break.

The characters themselves, however, are believable if not a bit formulaic. Dr. Ty Wilson, the golden boy of the hospital, is described as a meditating, mysterious bachelor of a man, skillful with a scalpel but nursing a personal life riddled with intimacy issues.His female counterpart, Dr. Tina Ridgway, is “gorgeous in a way that went beyond her flawless skin, high cheekbones, and the kind of lips lots of women were paying lots of money to replicate.” The two, naturally, are having a love affair. No spoilers there.

But it’s Dr. Sung Park, the sullen Korean doctor with a type A personality and unpleasant disposition, who turns out to be one of the most fascinating -- not just because of the way he barks at residents and demands complete silence in his own home -- but because he undergoes a change in the book that could be read as willful stripping of his culture, even if Gupta didn’t intend it to be so.

Park, who enjoys scoffing at his fellow surgeons and acting cold toward his doting wife, has to undergo a delicate brain surgery that, much like Phineas Gage, leaves him with a decidedly different personality -- though his new demeanor is warmer and more emotional:

Gahm-sah-hahm-ni-da,’ Park croaked in Korean. Thank you. His throat was dry and his voice barely audible, but the words came out clearly. Park wasn’t sure why he thanked his wife and daughters; nor was he sure why he was speaking Korean. He spoke English at home, unless he and his wife were alone or he wanted to speak privately to her in front of the kids. It just came out: Thank you. The words weren’t exactly what he intended, but pretty close. He meant to say thankful.

It’s a subtle commentary on Park’s cultural roots, and what can happen when just a few nerves are tweaked. In the end, it isn’t Park himself who needs to change, but just that aspect of his personality -- the stereotypically Type-A Asian part -- that needs a bit of adjustment.

And so it is with Gupta’s storyline. At its root, the highly involved narrative is exciting, a cursory peek behind the curtains of a fluorescent-lit institution. But perhaps a few swift nicks here, a careful splice there, and Monday Mornings could emerge as a more complete, pleasant entity.

Joyce Chen is a second-generation Taiwanese American journalist and current multimedia editor at the New York Daily News, where she covers viral videos, recaps "The Bachelorette" and wades her way through all things entertainment and gossip -- with tongue firmly in cheek, of course. She originally hails from Cerritos, CA, and graduated with degrees in print journalism and psychology from the University of Southern California, where she was previously the editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan. Her writings have been published in People magazine, Los Angeles magazine and the Los Angeles Daily News.

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