Editorial May 2003 Heroic Healers By Hilary Williamson
A bright silver lining in the dark clouds of terrorism, war and pestilence that have marked the beginnings of the 21st century, has been the heroism of individuals, especially those who fight on the front lines of emergency response - police officers, firefighters and health care workers. After a recent visit to a Toronto hospital showed me healers in action, I mused on their roles as heroes and heroines of books, both fiction and factual.
Beginning with the latter, Elizabeth A. Fenn's Pox Americana is an account of the significant role that smallpox played in the Revolutionary War, with lessons on societal impact that are (sadly) relevant today. Atul Gawande's Complications is an honest and insightful treatise on the fallibility of surgeons, medical mysteries, and uncertainties that affect diagnosis. And Dr. Jamie Weisman's As I Live and Breathe takes the unique perspective of a patient who decided to become a doctor.
In fiction, Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs come immediately to mind; their heroines (Medical Examiner and forensic anthropologist, respectively) investigate the dead in order to help the living. Robin Hathaway's cozier Doctor mysteries star a GP who still makes house calls, but my favorite series healer is Barbara Hambly's ex-slave physician/musician Ben January in 1800s New Orleans. Somewhere between contemporary thriller and SF is David Ambrose's The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk - one of the protagonists of this clever construct of dreams within dreams is a medical researcher.
Speaking of thrillers, Tess Gerritsen does gruesome very well in stories like The Surgeon, and Eileen Dreyer writes her own trauma nursing experience into With A Vengeance (its heroine is also a SWAT team medic). Karin Slaughter's scary thriller Blindsighted features a pediatrician investigator. And Steven Schlossstein's bioterror thriller The Jiangxi Virus hits almost too close to home with an engineered 'flu epidemic released from China and foiled by crack CDC epidemiologist Ellen Chou.
Classic science fiction gives us James White's wonderful Sector Generalstories, in which brilliant, unorthodox physician Conway treats aliens and humans alike and is constantly in hot water with Chief Psychologist O'Mara. S. L. Viehl's Stardoc series has a lot of fun with a physician heroine who is a genetically altered clone and has half the galaxy perpetually chasing after her. And, on a more serious theme, Connie Willis' Passage takes a fascinating look at near death experiences, starring a psychologist and a neurologist.
Though I predict a surge in the release of medical mysteries and speculative fiction about heroic healers and disease detection, and will read them with enjoyment, I also hope for all our sakes that such plots stay safely between the pages of fiction.
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