Sunday, September 7, 2008

Life in the Balance - Dr. Thomas Graboys - Review - NYTimes

A Doctor Transformed, Into a Patient

Doctors get seriously ill just like ordinary people, and some of them never recover from the shock. If of a literary bent, they are often moved to reflect for posterity on this disruption of the natural order, detailing their former hubris and the enlightening misery of health care experienced from the other side of the bed.

Against this generally lackluster collection of memoirs, Dr. Thomas Graboys's stands out as a small wonder. Unsentimental and unpretentious, it manages to hit all its marks effortlessly, creating a version of the old fable as touching, educational and inspiring as if it had never been told before.

The story's success lies partly in its almost mythic dimensions: Dr. Graboys rose high, and he fell hard. Until age 50 he was a medical version of one of Tom Wolfe's masters of the universe: a noted Harvard cardiologist beloved by colleagues and patients, happily married to a tall, beautiful blonde. He was a marathon runner, a demon on the tennis courts and ski slopes, and, if he says so himself, a particularly handsome guy.

Then everything fell apart. Over a terrible two-year period Dr. Graboys's wife died a lingering death from colon cancer. In his grief he barely noticed that he was not functioning quite as well as usual. Those around him figured his fatigue and uncharacteristic fumbling were only to be expected. He pulled himself together, met another woman, and then collapsed on the wedding day — the beginning of physical problems that could no longer be ignored.

It was Parkinson's disease, the neurological condition that makes the body stiffen and shake, but it took Dr. Graboys many months to take the irrevocable step of giving his problems a name. During that time he went through every rationalization that sick people use to wish away their symptoms, then moved smoothly from denial to deception. "I'm just tired," he snapped to concerned colleagues, even as he began taking surreptitious clinical notes on his own case.

Only when the chief of neurology at his hospital cheerfully hailed him in the parking garage — "Tom, who is taking care of your Parkinson's?" — was the terrible word said aloud. Dr. Graboys finally understood that the jig was up.

From this moment his memoir unfolds in multiple layers, some predictable, some quite unexpected.

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