Doctors write more than just prescriptions. And if the vast landscape of medicine is of interest to you or someone on your holiday list, I have suggestions. At this point in your shopping, you might find these easier to find (providing you have a nearby bookstore or access to Amazon.ca) than a particular size, color and width of slippers or a fancy statement necklace so pricey you want to hang yourself. The only prerequisite: Curiosity. About health, about medicine, about science.
My three favorite titles of the last five years could be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good tale, impeccably researched, well written. Just because they are not new, do not overlook them. All three are applauded on various book review sites if that matters to you or the person you're buying for.
For starters, there's the novel Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, a gripping saga about twin brothers. Orphaned at birth by their mother's death and abandoned by their father, they grew up amid political upheaval in Ethiopia and both went into medicine. I found it a compelling read, beautifully written, the characters complex yet real, and there's interesting detail (some say too much) about the education of a surgeon -- like Verghese, himself, I imagine.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is by science writer Rebecca Skloot who investigates the story behind HeLa, a most prolific cell which was taken without permission in 1951 from a poor black southern woman who died of cervical cancer. The book, an exploration of the social wrong committed by the medical establishment, is both Henrietta's story and the story of one of the most important tools in medicine: HeLa's cell, reproduced over and over, yielded an estimated 50 million metric tons of cells which over the years were sold and used in research into everything from the polio vaccine to cancer and aging. They were also sent into space to see how human cells would survive. Oprah is making this a movie, but don't wait to see it. Read or give the book now.
Not depressing but illuminating is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer physician whose historical drama is written with a biographer's touch. If you thought you knew what cancer is about, this book which won the Pulitzer Prize and is probably the best exploration of the disease that humans have lived and died from for 5,000 years, will surprise you. It's a story about centuries of discoveries, misconceptions, setbacks, and victories, treatments -- some hopeful, others successful, still others botched because its practitioners did not really understand the disease they attempted to treat.
Although Atal Gawande is a surgeon, in his new book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, he looks at why and how we need to examine our approaches to life as it draws to a close. While examining the great success of this past century's healthcare, Gawande also looks at how the system has failed to adequately help people who are failing in health. "Being mortal," he writes, "is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone." A doctor's job is not just to ensure health and survival, he says: "It's to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive." It's a hard conversation, but one elegantly articulated -- thoughtful and necessary.
Just as the printing press liberated knowledge from the control of an elite class, so too is the technology we each have at our fingertips poised to democratize medicine. That's the argument made by Eric Topol in his new book The Patient Will See You Now. Topol, an M.D. and founder of the world's first cardiovascular gene bank at the Cleveland Clinic, is also author of the bestseller The Creative Destruction of Medicine. His interest, of course, is the digital revolution which will free patients from the paternalistic medicine practiced in the past. Will doctors know best once patients understand they are the experts of themselves? Smart phones, with their diagnostic consumer-friendly apps and tracking devices are just the first step. Soon it will be the brave new world of the Smart Patient.
On Immunity by Eula Biss is a wise, thoughtful and thorough examination of the subject of immunization. Part research, part reflection, Biss joined the immunization debate during pregnancy and while she emerged pro-vaccination she found some of the myths about vaccination "seductive." Her book explores both the re-emergence of various diseases and the reservations and fears behind the anti-immunization movement, the distrust in science and the pharmaceutical industry, and the long road that led to how immunization has become such a highly politicized issue.
Finally, a health guide for really, really, really late giving: For U.S. $18 you can download one of several fantastic illustrated health guides from Harvard Medical School. Dr. Anthony Komaroff, Harvard Health's Editor-in-Chief, oversees and introduces a rich bounty of health subjects on everything from Better Balance to The Sensitive Gut. I recently received one called Strength and Power Training: A guide for older adults, and even my personal trainer declared it the best thing since sliced bread -- except you almost don't need a personal trainer if you download this guide with its various workout routines, tips on buying equipment and avoiding injury. To download one of their Special Reports, go to www.health.harvard.edu and choose a subject that interests you or the person you are gifting. Just print it out, put it in a pretty box and wrap it up with a satin bow.