CRIII #1: House of God by Samuel Shem

Yay! It is once again time for Cannonball Read! And this year I am officially in! If you’re interested in the specifics, check out the link here. Basically, the goal is to read and blog about 52 books in one year. For every one of the registered participants who completes the task, a donation is made to a scholarship fund which benefits the son of beloved Pajiba commenter AlabamaPink, who passed away last year. I managed to complete CRII with just over a month to spare, so I do not fear this challenge! Onward!

This year’s first book is House of God by Samuel Shem. House of God is the well-known Jewish hospital in a large New England city (hint hint) where recent medical school graduate Roy Basch finds himself for his first year of medical internship. Over the course of the year, Basch rotates through the hospital, dealing with the gomers (Get Out of My Emergency Room!) who never get well and yet are too old and sick to die, the young people (who DO die), the patient families, residents, attendings, private physicians, administrators, nurses, housekeepers, and the other interns. He makes friends, including Chuck, a fellow intern from Memphis whose destiny has been decided entirely by mail-in cards, Gilheeny and Quick, two policeman who spend their time as “lay analysts,” Potts, a gentle intern from the South, and the mysterious Fat Man–a resident who lays down the LAWS OF THE HOUSE and never seems to steer Roy wrong.

However, during the course of the year–in the shadow of the Watergate scandal and the nation’s mass disillusionment–Roy finds himself hardening into a cynical, bitter man. He has to contend with a “ROR” (relationship on the rocks) and mounting stress that begins to turn him into a person he no longer recognizes. He has trouble playing hospital politics, particularly when he feels that they are detrimental to the patients. By the end of the book, Roy and the rest of the interns have to decide whether they want to continue on for a second year at the House of God or whether they would be better off somewhere else.

The author, real name Stephen Bergman, was actually a medical intern at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical center, which is just down the street from the illustrious institution in which I work. Although I don’t have the same viewpoint as one of the interns or residents, since I am a mere phone-answering paper-monkey, I definitely recognize some of what was going on in this novel. The personality types represented (particularly those further up the departmental food chain) ring true, though certainly exaggerated for the sake of satire. I also recognize the behavior of patients. Medical technology has changed since the mid-seventies, but people never do.

It’s an interesting piece of writing, and I would recommend it to anyone who works in or around the medical profession. Although it is raunchy and funny and over-the-top, it’s–as John Updike notes in the preface–doing for the medical profession what Catch-22 did for the military. It holds up a fun house mirror and dares the reader to look in and see what he or she recognizes.

It may also make you think very seriously the next time you step into an emergency room…


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