BOOK: Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER by Julie Holland, MD (2009)

I’m a bit of a sucker for memoirs written by doctors.  I’ve read a ton of them, and almost always really enjoy them.  This is the first time I’ve read one written by a psychiatrist, though, and while I was intrigued by the idea of a memoir about life on the front lines of a psychiatric emergency room, I didn’t end up getting much out of it, I’m afraid.  In large part because this is one doctor who is clearly a much better doctor than storyteller.

One of the things that makes a medical memoir so fascinating (to me, anyway) is the way in which the doctors telling the stories about their training and patients manage to make those stories relatable to the average reader.  I may not have gone to medical school, and I’ve definitely never had a super-duper bizarre illness, but somehow I am almost always able to feel some kind of empathetic pull.

And that’s where Holland’s book falls down on the job.  Instead of taking the time to tell intimate stories about the people (teachers, colleagues, or patients) who really had an impact on her during her nine years at Bellevue, she focuses instead of telling short vignettes about the most disturbed patients she encountered on the job.  While this was fascinating initially, if only because it’s hard NOT to be fascinated by stories about super-duper crazy people, especially when you are sometimes considered to be super-duper crazy yourself, eventually I got bored with Holland herself.  She seemed to find each case more a spectacle than anything else, and even says in the prologue she focused on her most radically ill patients because she figured those would be the stories that sold.  But I think she’s wrong about that, myself, and the fact most of the chapters are only 2-3 pages long meant there was never time to really connect with any patient or their plight.

I confess I didn’t even end up finishing this one — I had a hard time putting it down for the first fifty or so pages, thinking every short tale of illness was building up to a bigger story about Holland herself, but when it became clear she wasn’t headed in that direction, I lost interest.  I skipped most of the last hundred pages and jumped to the end — still hopeful, but ultimately still unsatisfied.

I suppose it’s about time I hit on a doctor memoir that stunk — I can’t think of another one I’ve read that didn’t enthrall me in one way or another.  But this is only the book for you if you like gawking at the mentally ill (not my thing, personally), not if you’re interested in learning something.  For far, far better works in this genre, dig up anything you can find by Atul Gawande, who is one of the best at this sort of thing I’ve encountered, or Oliver Sacks, who writes about neurology and mental illness in a far more personal and less clinical way.


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2 Responses to “BOOK: Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER by Julie Holland, MD (2009)”

  1. Melinda Says:

    See, I just have a knitting with group with two ER personnel and occasionally coworkers of theirs who drop by. The stories they tell! My favorite story so far has been about “those two dudes” who always seem to be beating people up when they were “just standing on the street!!! Minding my own business!!”

  2. lorianne Says:

    I too, love books written by doctors. I recently read One Hundred Days – by David Biro. Very well wriiten, at least the second half of the book. The first half is quite full of medical jaqrgon, but a great story, nonetheless. I would love some suggestions ! Also enjoyed books by Tilda Shaloff, fiction by Robin Cook.

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