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Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Life In His Hands, Susan Wyndham's account of the death of Aaron McMillan, a young Sydney pianist, and the neurosurgeon who helped him, covers six years.

From first awareness of illness in 2001 it covers a lot of ground up to the end in 2007. Helen Garner called it "fast-paced" and according to Sydney PEN it was "full of heartache and joy and scientific marvels".

Sandra Lee writing in The Daily Telegraph ('A medical superhero' 23 March 2008) labelled Charlie Teo "the go-to neurosurgeon for the worst-case brain tumour patients, a modern-day medical superhero with a cowboy persona and a can-do attitude".

Others were less enthusiastic. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer (11 April 2008) noted that "Aaron's experience was now a more realistic case study of the neurosurgeon's work".

Antonella Gambotto went further. She said "[t]he dialogue in general reads like the transcription of an ESL exam" and that the book ends with "quadraphonic mediocrity". She also has issues with Wyndham's bias in favour of Teo: "Wyndham could have addressed the rigorous medical training that conditions surgeons to function in intolerable situations."

Nevertheless, "[t]he very lovely Aaron McMillan was gifted with six more years of real living thanks to the maverick neurosurgeon," Lee wrote. As Garner said, the book is "warmly sensitive" and possibly that's the main sticking point. We find no rough edges on Aaron or Charlie; both emerge smelling like roses.

The book cannot, for this reason, be labelled literary journalism. If anything, it's a chronicle. The huge response to its publication, including a huge 1800 words on 5 April 2008, again in the SMH, by the author, should sound a warning. This article notes many new books on dying including ones by Debra Adelaide and Helen Garner.

The anti-Charlie line should have been followed up. In an interview she gave The Wentworth Courier, Wyndham said "I had always hoped to write a book, I thought I'd probably do it about 20 years ago and I've always been looking for that subject matter I just had to write about".

"Being in their presence and hearing them talk, I always felt optimistic," she went on. It should have made her more curious. She started research in June 2002 but the main thread of interest to a journalist - and the Telegraph's headline underscores this - is the animosity toward Charlie in a very small pond.

Gambotto's rider is welcome and Wyndham should have anticipated this kind of treatment because the other side is just not canvassed at all. When Helen Garner is rebuffed by a protagonist, she tries every avenue several times before giving up. And she still strives to see from both sides. Wyndham has taken a series of comments as gospel.

As a result, we are not drawn toward Charlie, as we should be. "When you get people rewriting the textbooks they are usually frowned on by society," says Neil McKenzie (p 172), a New Zealand GP, and a patient of Charlie's. "Charlie thrived in the bigger, less conservative and highly competitive American neurosurgical community" (p 31).

These items are titillating, but apart from a few paragraphs about Charlie getting few referrals from certain insitutions, and a 'campaign' to have him deregistered, we are largely in the dark after almost 300 pages.

The other appealing element in the book is the effects of surgery, as Aaron experienced them. Possibly Wyndham is unqualified to comment too fullsomely, but there is scope here for development.

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