That One Patient [Book Review]

I told myself I would remember her forever – the first patient I lost. I was just a third year medical student, and really, it was my team doing the looking after, not me. I’ve forgotten her name by now, but I still remember her. 

I initially resisted reading Ellen de Visser’s That One Patient – a collection of stories submitted by doctors to a Dutch newspaper, about the “one” patient that changed their lives. Would the stories trigger me? Would they be sensationalised? Would they be trite?

I eventually did read it, and I am so glad I did. (The answers to my questions were all “no”.)

The chapters in That One Patient are short and easy to read in between cases, at lunch, or during a commute (provided one is not driving). Easy to read, but not all are necessarily easy to digest. This collection accurately conveys the experience of medical professionals: the hours, the pressure, and the way it is impossible for work not to bleed into our daily lives. 

“…that is what healthcare professionals wish to share: stories confessing a certain vulnerability.”

Ellen de Visser, That One Patient

The value in this collection is for the public, as well as for healthcare workers. Knowing that we all share vulnerabilities is essential to our professional community, where individuals often feel isolated. Concurrently, it is important for the public to understand the machinations of the health sector. The public is not always fully aware (and this is perhaps our own fault) what our work entails, nor of its very real effects on the very real humans taking care of them.

“I came to realise that our profession is a very reflective one[…]”

Wilco Achterberg, That One Patient

Make no mistake, this is also a huge learning opportunity for doctors about patients. Many of the stories address “pearls” of patient care that have been hard-won during years of empathic practice.

The diversity of stories in That One Patient is broad in subject matter, as well as the spectrum of narrators. I would have liked if all narrators included their years in practice – only some did.

Although these stories come from healthcare workers both young and old, many address a very current conflict in the medical community: the concept of a “good death”, or euthanasia. The Netherlands was the first European country where euthanasia was legalised, and many of the authors of these stories were young doctors during the years that the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act was developing into what it is today. 

“As doctors, we generally learn how to help people live, but we hardly ever learn how to help them die.”

Anne Speckens, That One Patient

These are stories about real humans, and so not every story is agreeable. Sometimes I felt that a narrator’s opinion was bigoted, or lacked depth. Sometimes I did not agree. Sometimes I exclaimed, “Exactly! That’s exactly what I’ve learned, too!” 

This does not detract from the reading experience – in fact, I prefer a book that stirs up conflicting emotions. This is the kind of book one would enjoy discussing with friends or colleagues. It certainly has many “hooks” for discussion, whether for a book club of laypersons, healthcare workers, or a mix.

That One Patient is more than a collection of “mini-biographies” – it is a work of medical sociology. It is a work that shows that underneath our experiences, we really are our own “that one patient”.

Post-script: The edition I read was translated and printed after the beginning of the COVID19-pandemic, and has additional chapters by doctors from the USA and UK.

Note: I received an eARC of this book via NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

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