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The book that made me go to medical school – and other good reads

Stanford medical student Natalia Birgisson offers suggestions of books that doctors-to-be should be reading.

Editor's note: Over the last several months, numerous young Scope readers have inquired about which books they should be reading to prepare for a potential future in medicine. We asked medical student (and SMS-Unplugged contributor) Natalia Birgisson to offer some suggestions.

“In my business, you can lose big, but sometimes you win big, too.” So begins page 87 of the book that made me go to medical school. It was the summer after my freshman year of college and I was volunteering in an outpatient pediatric ward. In the span of a week, I had seen two babies die. A newborn died of complications from seizures right in front of me, and a two week old baby died of malnutrition as we watched him wither away in an incubator.

I couldn’t stand the feeling of being a part of a system that was cumbersome and ineffective, I couldn’t stand my heart breaking, and I wanted to want to be anything other than a doctor. I lay in bed the next day and looked around my rented tropical room for distraction. On the night table was a book left by the last guest, The Soul of Medicine: Tales from the Bedside by Sherwin Nuland, MD, and what I found in his collection of stories was solace, companionship, and hope. It is a compilation of stories, each chapter written by a doctor in a different specialty discussing his or her most memorable patient. If you're interested in medicine, the reality of it, then I suggest taking Nuland up on his offer to glimpse the mark that medicine leaves on a doctor’s soul. I keep it next to my couch in case a lost friend ever happens upon it the way I did.

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder was the next book that strongly influenced me. A detailed glimpse into the life story and accomplishments of Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, who not only serves as a role model for anyone interested in global health, but who has changed the world for the better in a tangible way. What I remember from this book is a short scene in which we learn that, at least during the time the journalist was shadowing him, Farmer saw his daughter only once a month. They say that part of a teenager’s angst is realizing that her parents are not perfect and being angry at them for their flaws. Well, Dr. Farmer, I’m still angry with you for missing out on your daughter’s childhood the way my dad did. And for the rest of my life, when I think about changing the world by saving peoples lives, it will be with the caveat of improving on the model that he lived by. Because to me, there's no point in helping strangers if I’m hurting the ones I love.

Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs and Hot Lights, Cold Steel by Michael J. Collins, MD, were two medical memoirs that resonated strongly with me. I read these the summer that I was writing my medical school applications. Somehow, the application process has a way of making everyone feel incompetent or mediocre at best. And here was a guy who decided to take post-bachelor classes as a construction worker, carpool to medical school, and marry the love of his life before starting residency at the Mayo Clinic. Almost every page of his books had me laughing or crying as I rooted for him.

Other notable books I highly recommend:

Books on my bookshelf waiting for their spotlight:

And, two obvious ones:

Natalia Birgisson is a second-year student at Stanford’s medical school. She is half Icelandic, half Venezuelan and grew up moving internationally before coming to Stanford for college. She is interested in neurosurgery, global health, and ethics. Natalia loves running and baking; when she’s lucky the two activities even out.

Previously: For group of Stanford doctors, writing helps them “make sense” of their experiences, Exploring global health through historical literature, Stanford’s Abraham Verghese honored as both author and healer, Literature and medicine at life’s end and Physicians turn to books to better understand patients, selves
Photo by d-221 books

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