In 1989, Iona Heath, an inner city GP in London, applied for study leave to spend three months reading novels. The Department of Postgraduate Education turned her down, but she took the three months off anyway and says it changed her life. The experiences of characters in fiction resonate with our own experiences, and those of our patients, and illuminate both.
There is fiction by doctors about doctors. AJ Cronin is not currently very fashionable, but there is more to him than Dr Findley. My favourite is probably more fact than fiction: Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Country Doctor’s Notebook’. While few 21st century British doctors will experience the loneliness of making life or death clinical decisions in a remote Russian village in the middle of winter, many of us may see our own early experiences as doctors distilled in his stories.
There are doctors in fiction by non-doctors. Poor Dr Lydgate in Middlemarch is always quoted – ahead of his time (using a stethoscope!) but destroyed by an injudicious marriage. GPs tempted by sexual indiscretion might remember him with fellow feeling. Doctors in literature suffer other problems. Frank in Damon Galgut’s Booker-nominated ‘The Good Doctor’, or Eduardo Plarr in Graham Greene’s (to my mind) much better ‘The Honorary Consul’, both remind us that it is not just overwork which causes burnout.