11 April 2019, The Tablet

The healing art

The healing art

War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line
(Picador, 304 PP, £18.99)
Tablet bookshop price £17.09 • Tel 020 7799 4064

Seven Signs of Life: Stories from an Intensive Care Doctor
(Vintage, 288 PP, £12.99)
Tablet bookshop price £11.69 • Tel 020 7799 4064

Another Doctor in the Forest
(Yorkley A&E, 128 PP, £12.95)
Tablet bookshop price £11.65 • Tel 020 7799 4064

Three more medical memoirs in an increasingly crowded field might seem like gilding the lily, but this most recent batch – from a veteran trauma ­surgeon, a young intensive care doctor and an erstwhile rural general practitioner – are each in their different ways revelatory and profound. In 1993 David Nott volunteered for a six-week stint in bombarded, besieged Sarajevo. His first casualty, a woman in her seventies, had lost both legs and an arm from a shrapnel blast. She died on the operating table. Soon after, while Nott was extracting a mortar fragment from the abdomen of a 16-year-old boy, the hospital took a direct hit. The lights went out and he was left in the dark with his hand pressing on the bleeding aorta, feeling its pulsation ­gradually ebbing away. “It was like an abattoir … I stumbled out shedding my gloves and gown and felt a sense of utter despair.”

But he had found his calling and ever since has taken annual unpaid leave from his NHS post to do what he can to salvage the innocent victims of the internecine conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Gaza and elsewhere. His account of these experiences in War Doctor conveys more vividly than anything else the unimaginable physical and mental suffering of those caught in the merciless crossfire of civil war and terrorist insurgency.

The counterpoint to this brutal reality is the heroism and camaraderie of the local medical staff. In two separate visits to rebel- held eastern Aleppo, he writes, “The young doctors and surgeons were the most remarkable groups of individuals I have ever met” – daily exposed to the hazards of sniper fire and cluster bombs. This is an unforgettable glimpse of hell on earth.

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