A Matter of Life and Death

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

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Posted December 22, 2011 in Arts & Culture

Don’t run in the house.

It’s one of the first rules you learned when you were young, right along with “No playing ball in the living room.”

You could run on the playground. You could run in the school gym. You could get your little legs going on the sidewalk, the street, ball field, or track.

But in the house?

Nope. No running, and the rule was in effect for school hallways, too. But, as you’ll see in the new book Trauma: My Life as an Emergency Surgeon by Dr. James Cole, running is allowed in hospitals, as a matter of life or death.

Even before he was through high school, James Cole knew he wanted to be a surgeon. It was a long-time dream, and he was doing it differently: following his internship, Cole took a two-year “hiatus” to work as a military General Medical Officer assigned to an elite Marine Corps unit.

It was a great opportunity, but it involved sacrifice: Cole was away from his family for long stretches at a time; on rotation thousands of miles away, training with his military team, or deployed at an overseas camp hospital.

During and between his military duties, Cole worked in stateside hospitals and trauma centers. In Texas, he worked with burn patients and gang members. In the Midwest, he tended to accident victims whose lives he could save but whose limbs he could not. He cared for mentally ill patients, on behalf of whom he takes colleagues to task. And he writes about differences.

In America, a man can lose a leg to a motorcycle accident. At war, a soldier can lose an arm to a bomb.

Drugs, anger, knives, abductions and street violence can rob a mother of her child in America. In Afghanistan, a land mine can do the same thing.

Here at home, an abusive husband, a drunk driver or a seven-story fall can send pieces of metal deep into body cavities, and do damage. In Iraq, it takes one suicidal person and an explosive . . .

There’s a lot to like about Trauma: My Life as an Emergency Surgeon, starting with the humility of its author.

Dr. James Cole repeatedly chastises himself for his arrogance, which is often followed by fervent expressions of thankfulness to have been sent down paths that allowed him to achieve his goals. He gives credit to those who taught him—colleagues and patients alike—and that lack of self-important braggadocio is oh-so-refreshing.

Add to this some exciting stories of life (and death) in the ER, a hint of danger and secret military ops, and a not-so-subtle warning for anyone who wants to be a doctor and thinks it would be just like on TV, and you’ve got a memoir that’s first-rate.

Be aware that, because of the pictures (which are, thankfully, in black-and-white) this book isn’t for the weak of stomach. If you want a unique peek behind the bedside curtain, though, Trauma: My Life as an Emergency Surgeon is a book to run for.

Trauma: My Life as an Emergency Surgeon by Dr. James Cole, St. Martin’s Press, 336 pages. List price $25.99.


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