The Life and Time of a Country Surgeon: The Good and the Bad
James W. Sampsel, M.D.
Reviewed by Olivera Baumgartner-Jackson for Reader Views (9/11)
Personal memoirs are always a tricky proposition. How much of what the author deems so interesting would actually strike a chord with the general public? The author, Dr. Sampsel, expressed that very well in his introduction, saying, “The ego of the writer is a feature; he envisions his ideas to be of some general interest.” Sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not… I feel rather divided about this when it comes to “The Life and Time of a Country Surgeon.”
The story of Dr. Sampsel starts with his early childhood and formative years, and then guides the reader through the years of training, military service, work at the Memorial Hospital of the Union County, research and more. There is a lot of detail and a lot of memories, some of them good and some anything but. While I am certain that a reader who is either part of the medical profession or headed in that direction would find a great percentage of this of interest, I had trouble finding much enthusiasm for the minutiae so lovingly described throughout the book. All the names of people the author met throughout his long life, the details of his cases, various elucidations on courses of treatment and similar subjects left me pretty detached. “Trauma to the spleen, with or without fracture of the tenth left rib, left shoulder pain, peritoneal signs from extravasated blood, falling hemoglobin, shock, all indicators of splenic injury, the most common major abdominal catastrophe.” “At our emergency abdominal exploration, we found a perforation at the cecum, but the entire right colon, even part of the transverse had the outer muscle layer near completely separated from the inner circular muscle, leaving a thin mucosa exposed in other regions.” This was way too complicated for this particular reader, who unfortunately lacks any medical background.
Then there was the writing style itself. The structure of sentences was extremely difficult to follow, and I could not decide whether that was due to the lack of professional editing or simply the thought patterns of the author. I had to stop and re-read a lot of sentences several times simply trying to decide which of their parts actually belonged together. Let me cite just a couple of examples:
“Our introduction to obstetrics also exciting, was by way of home delivery. […] When patients went into labor at home, they would somehow get access to a telephone, call the hospital, and two of us; senior students would be dispatched in a hospital car, always with difficulty finding the address. Into back alleys and up old stairs, we would arrive with our bags to assay the situation […] The telephone rang several times a day in the waiting room where we waited our turn, while mostly studying and listening to classical music on records, part of the enjoyable experience with this senior discipline that sticks in my mind.”
In spite of the abovementioned issues, I believe “The Life and Time of a Country Surgeon” to be a valuable record of a long and productive life in an extremely difficult professional field. I liked the “unvarnished truth” aspect of it, and the courage it took to talk about a lot of rather touchy issues. I also felt that it was truly written from the heart, and for that the author deserves and gets my utmost respect and admiration.