The story of how young Canadian medical doctor Vincent Lam found an advocate for his first book of short stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, is this: Dr Lam was working as the ship’s physician on a Russian scientific vessel occasionally used to transport nature-lovers to the Arctic; one of the passengers was Margaret Attwood. Spotting this as a serendipity most aspiring writers would die for, the doctor asked the famous author to read his work. She did and, suitably impressed, forwarded it to a publisher at Doubleday. Now Lam’s well-crafted, compassionate and insightful book about the lives of four young doctors is appearing on bestseller lists, and a Canadian producer has bought the television rights. It definitely helps to have a famous author on side when you’re starting out.
Not that his stories aren’t inherently worthy, or that Dr Lam wasn’t already working at becoming a published author. Prior to writing Bloodletting, Lam undertook a writing course, had some success with his nonfiction articles, and was collecting rejection slips from literary magazines. He is about to publish a book on the topic of influenza, co-authored with another doctor, and is writing a novel.
The twelve stories he offers in Bloodletting take us into the lives of Ming, Fitz, Sri and Chen, medical students at the University of Toronto. We follow them through their consuming studies into rather harrowing lives as working physicians. We first meet Ming and Fitz in ‘How to Get Into Medical School’, one of the book’s most lyrical stories. Ming is a determined, pragmatic student, who is attracted to Fitz but concerned that his intense affections might distract her from her study. Without giving away too much, things end in tears. When we encounter Ming and Fitz in later stories, the very detached Ming has, somewhat disturbingly, settled on paediatrics as her area of specialty, and Fitz has succumbed to his natural melancholy and developed a drinking problem that has terrible ramifications for his career. Dr Sri, in a story titled ‘Take All of Murphy’, is the embodiment of the compassionate physician, refusing to cut through a corpse’s tattoo knowing how important that marker would have been to the man while alive, and displaying clear horror when Ming rather cavalierly misplaces part of the dead man’s head. Meanwhile, Dr Chen moves exhausted through long night shifts, treating a woman for hiccups and convincing a man that he has, despite his objections, had a heart attack. When he has to treat a member of his own family, Chen shows us the effects a medico’s cultural background and emotional makeup play in how they treat their patients.
Throughout the book, the doctors must deal with psychotic, desperate, and bewildering patients, bringing to their job their own weaknesses, preoccupations, rivalries and insecurities. It seems depressingly convincing that as the characters mature their troubles become larger, darker, and less resolvable. The story of Fitz and Chen’s time together in quarantine during Toronto’s 2003 SARS outbreak offers a poignant description of the troubles nurses face, too, when women with children, relationship and money woes of their own have to treat infectious doctors.
These are fictional tales but drawn from incidents in Lam’s life and it is a sign of how skilful he is as a writer and how confident as a doctor, that he knows which details will lend the stories gravitas and credibility.
These medical tales are compelling. Lam’s doctors must decide whether to lie to grieving widows or collude with police over the treatment of violent felons. Death is involved, doctors heroically race against the clock to save lives, their bodies fail them, their patients are imperfect, they struggle with hefty moral and ethical issues, and all the while they must pretend to be as infallible as we want to believe they are.
Vincent Lam’s writing is sparse and elegant, and the stories of his flawed characters and the challenges of their chosen calling are strangely haunting.