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Book Review

'Internal Medicine' Makes Difficult Stories Accessible

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Internal Medicine by Terrence Holt is a compilation of nine stories that loosely reflect Holt’s experience as an internal medicine resident. Each story is a compositely drawn case, just as Holt’s protagonist, “Harper,” is an amalgamation of his fellow residents. Holt remolds the medical cases, he says, “according to the logic not of journalism but of parable, seeking to capture the essence of something too complex to be understood any other way.”

In a heart-rending story called “The Surgical Mask," Harper visits a home hospice patient who is dying of a cancer that is disfiguring her mouth and nose. Surrounded by a gallery of her own lush paintings, she cannot talk coherently and wears a square, white surgical mask. The mask invokes a paralyzing anxiety in Dr. Harper so that he is unable to examine his patient or even do his job.

In another story, the young doctor, seeking respect from his mentors, is coercing a patient having difficulty breathing to wear an oxygen mask. The stiff, brittle mask with the cumbersome elastic band is too much; she won’t keep it on and save herself. Harper insists on dealing with this conundrum alone. Resolution comes in the death of the patient, and Harper’s exasperation is assuaged by the leading physician, remarking that Harper did all he could, but…he didn’t have to go it alone.

In this exquisite collection, Terrence Holt reveals much about the hopes and frailties of doctors… and their patients.