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Books: ER doctor has healthy attitude about his crazy job

“Something for the Pain: One Doctor’s Account of Life and Death in the ER,” by Paul Austin. Norton. 297 pp. $24.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
dp1@salisburypost.com
Thanks, Dr. Austin, for bringing the emergency room down to a more personal level.
Thanks, too, for a little insight on what it takes to deal with everything from a gunshot wound to a belligerent drunk.
Paul Austin, of Durham, has written a book that’s part memoir, part … something else. His book does not have that clinical approach that many doctor’s books take.
Nor is it folksy. It’s not very graphic. It’s got personality. It is easy to read and interesting enough to make the reader want to follow Dr. Austin through his rotating shifts.
Austin, as a writer, has an amiable, easy-going style. You won’t get sick of him before the book is over. He draws readers in cleanly.
And he’s different. He went to college only after a period of working, he was a firefighter for years. But in many ways, he is the same as other doctors who operate in a high-stress world.
He has a temper he mostly keeps in check ó but when he blows, it’s usually big. Instead, he internalizes all his feelings.
Of course, doctors must develop some sort of emotional distance, especially ER doctors, just to get through a day of traumas, or a “Friday night in Durham,” as Austin describes it.
He wants, though, to be better than some of the cold, detached doctors he’s met. He wants to have compassion. He wants to see his patients as people, not time-suckers. He does manage to show a fair measure of humanity, not just to the people he’s treating, but also to the people he works with. He makes it a point to thank team members and praise them for good work.
His home life is a little tougher. His wife, a former psychiatric nurse, stays home with their three children. Their daughter Sarah has Down syndrome.
Austin, who pulls frequent night shifts, is chronically sleep deprived and equally desperate to catch up. Because he holds in his feelings about his work, he sometimes has a problem expressing emotion with his family.The good news, though, is that he deeply loves his wife and children, and makes constant efforts to be better. He finally gives in to his wife’s prodding to get some therapy, and he slowly learns how to unwind the very tight tangle he’s becoming.
The other good news is Austin’s a good storyteller. He describes encounters with patients in a conversational tone, omitting the medical terms for every piece of equipment and every piece of anatomy and every aspect of illness.
He tells about taking a little extra time with a patient he is trying to wean from a ventilator, gving the man incentive to try harder. He talks about trying to help a woman who has a probably-fatal brain bleed.
Above all, Austin is a fully engaged human being, working in a sometime inhumane world.

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