Medical residency, Michelle Au reminds us in her funny and moving memoir, This Won’t Hurt a Bit (Grand Central Publishing, 2011) was originally so named because new doctors resided in the hospital. Freed from social and domestic demands, their meals and laundry provided for, young physicians were able to focus with singleminded zeal upon disease and the care of patients. Naturally, none of the dedicated participants in this monastic scenario were mothers.
Over a hundred years later, Au, a young anesthesia resident on her lunch break, sits hunched over her breast pump in a grimy, unused, hospital shower stall, simultaneously eating lunch, checking in with her six-month-old’s nanny, and attempting to schedule a visit with his pediatrician, all before rushing back to the OR. The demographics of medical residents have changed; and they no longer live in the hospital — technically, anyway. But the commitment expected of these doctors in training remains as intense as ever.
Currently an anesthesiologist in Atlanta, Au has spent years chronicling her adventures in medicine and motherhood on The Underwear Drawer, her honest and often hilarious blog. This new memoir presents a more nuanced, in-depth examination of those twin jobs; but fundamentally, it’s a story about growing up.
We meet Au as a hapless medical student, attempting — under the impatient eyes of her supervising resident and a contemptuous nurse — to retrieve a stool sample from an obese eighty-five year-old man. Why, she wonders dispiritedly, would anyone want to become a doctor, anyway? Is it possible that she’s the worst medical student in her class? Will there be bagels at the nursing station when this procedure is over? It’s Au at her funny and self-deprecating best, gamely taking on the scut work thrown at medical students, while managing to maintain her sense of humor and the idealism that propelled her into medical school in the first place. In the vignettes that follow, Au ushers readers into medical training from the ground up, an experience she compares to negotiating an invisible maze.
What should I be doing? Where should I stand? Is this the time to ask questions? If I step up now, will it be construed as inappropriate or overly aggressive? If I don’t step up now, will I come off as passive and uninterested? What are my responsibilities and what are the boundaries?
As she progresses from student to resident, we watch her gain skill and confidence, despite doubts, the grueling hours, and the difficulty maintaining a life outside the hospital — specifically with the engaging Joe, a medical school classmate. “No amount of dim lighting can disguise the fact that Joe is A White Man and therefore instantly suspect in the eyes of [my] zeroth generation Chinese parents,” she writes. “However, being clean cut and having a master’s in Chemistry from UC Berkeley apparently counts as being Chinese enough.”
When Au and Joe marry and then have a baby during residency, they confront head-on the conflict between the desire for a private life and their very real dedication to a profession that seems to demand nearly all their time. It feels like a triumph when Au concludes, “just because medicine tries to consume our entire lives doesn’t mean we have to willingly hand them over.” Yet as she makes the transition to motherhood and, six weeks later, prepares to return to work, she realizes, “I now have two full time jobs — residency and motherhood — each of which demand my complete attention, almost all of my waking hours, and both of which society has drilled into me are my first, most important priorities. The stakes are huge. Half-assed efforts at either would be unacceptable.”
Au’s efforts, as a physician, a mother — and a writer — are far from half-assed. Her vivid depictions of medical procedures are an intriguing window into an arcane world (who knew that administering anesthesia could be so exciting?), and her thoughtful take on marriage and motherhood is equally compelling. This Won’t Hurt A Bit introduces us to a woman who loves what she does and is able to convey that love with poignancy and humor. It’s a treat to read.