Tornado of Life
A Doctor's Journey through Constraints and Creativity in the ER
320 pp., 5 x 8 in
- Published: August 30, 2022
- Publisher: The MIT Press
- Published: August 30, 2022
- Publisher: The MIT Press
Stories from the ER: a doctor shows how empathy, creativity, and imagination are the cornerstones of clinical care.
To be an emergency room doctor is to be a professional listener to stories. Each patient presents a story; finding the heart of that story is the doctor's most critical task. More technology, more tests, and more data won't work if doctors get the story wrong. When caring for others can feel like venturing into unchartered territory without a map, empathy, creativity, imagination, and thinking like a writer become the cornerstones of clinical care. In Tornado of Life, ER physician Jay Baruch shares these struggles in a series of short, powerful, and affecting essays that invite the reader into stories rich with complexity and messiness.
Patients come to the ER with lives troubled by scales of misfortune that have little to do with disease or injury. ER doctors must be problem-finders before they are problem-solvers. Cheryl, for example, whose story is a chaos narrative of “and this happened, and then that happened, and then, and then and then and then,” tells Baruch she is “stuck in a tornado of life.” What will help her, and what will help Mr. K., who seems like a textbook case of post-combat PTSD but turns out not to be? Baruch describes, among other things, the emergency of loneliness (invoking Chekhov, another doctor-writer); his own (frightening) experience as a patient; the patient who demanded a hug; and emergency medicine during COVID-19. These stories often end without closure or solutions. The patients are discharged into the world. But if they're lucky, the doctor has listened to their stories as well as treated them.
"In this collection of brief, touching essays, an emergency room doctor presents poignant stories about disease and loneliness and argues that medical professionals are 'stewards' of their patients' stories, morally obligated to look beyond data and tests."
New York Times Book Review
"ER physician Baruch (What's Left Out) recounts in this unflinching essay collection the professional challenges he's encountered, both pre-Covid and from the worst of the pandemic...Baruch has a knack for narrative and writes in a refined prose, and many entries, such as two concerning domestic violence victims who won't say that they're in danger, are tough to forget. Fans of Thomas Fisher's The Emergency: A Year of Healing and Heartbreak in a Chicago ER should give this a look."
"A rich collection of stories from years of working as an ER doctor...Baruch's point is not simply to reaffirm what many doctor-writers and medical humanities programs have now made clear—that story making is an essential part of clinical medicine. His point is that story making is also a morally, spiritually, and medically relevant part of clinical responsibility. It is a precarious business, riddled with pitfalls, that needs to be approached with attentiveness and skill...With admirable humility, Baruch avoids pontificating about what his professional colleagues should do. Instead he reflects openheartedly on what he has learned from patients, from his own mistakes, and from surprising epiphanies that come from the way a patient worded a question, or from a telling metaphor, or from an information gap that opened a new path of inquiry.”
The Christian Century
“An homage to the people Baruch has treated, failed, and helped. His ability to tell a story is what makes it so compelling. Tender, thoughtful and, at times, hard to read, it focuses on a doctor doing his best to truly hear patients, while constantly questioning whether his efforts are enough…Beautifully written with a different take on life.”
"Through stories that are often tender, sometimes chaotic, and always revealing, Jay Baruch beautifully conveys the messy art of doctoring. Read Tornado of Life to understand the emergency room in all its glory--warts and all."
Sandeep Jauhar, author of Intern: A Doctor's Initiation
"A book that, with huge empathy and compassion, builds a bridge between doctor and patient, writer and reader. Engaging and thoughtful."
Sinéad Gleeson, author of Constellations
"Among the vast literature of doctors writing about their profession, Dr. Jay Baruch is a unique talent, a spellbinding storyteller and an expert and experienced diagnostician. With literary references and poetic flare, Tornado of Life reveals the whirlwind of emotions gusting through emergency rooms. Rarely does a physician admit his own vulnerabilities and uncertainties in a way that illuminates the true art of his healing."
Randi Hutter Epstein, Writer in Residence Yale School of Medicine, and author of Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything
“This is THE BEST medical autoethnography/ memoir that I have read, no question. It addresses all the issues that I am constantly raising with medical students. It is so inspiring, thank you for this gift—a rare gem!”
Alan Bleakley, Emeritus Professor of Medical Education and Medical Humanities, Plymouth Peninsula School of Medicine, University of Plymout
“[Baruch] has mastered a particular literary form that begins with a clinical scene and then steps back, taking a broader perspective. The trick of his writing is that when he turns to the institutional realities that make the local scene what it is, he manages not to lose the particularities of the people whom he has made vividly present.”
—Professor Arthur Frank, Hastings Center Report
“Uplifting to read…Shows how empathy, creativity and imagination can still be found in acute clinical care…Offers a series of short, powerful and affecting essays that capture the stories of ER patients in all their complexity. The book brings the reader right into the chaos…[Baruch's] book is a testament to the need for patient stories to be listened to more than ever in our badly overcrowded emergency departments.”