Michele Harper is a female, African American emergency room physician in a profession that is overwhelmingly male and white. Brought up in Washington, DC, in an abusive family, she went to Harvard, where she met her husband. They stayed together through medical school until two months before she was scheduled to join the staff of a hospital in central Philadelphia, when he told her he couldn’t move with her. Her marriage at an end, Harper began her new life in a new city, in a new job, as a newly single woman.
In the ensuing years, as Harper learned to become an effective ER physician, bringing insight and empathy to every patient encounter, she came to understand that each of us is broken—physically, emotionally, psychically. How we recognize those breaks, how we try to mend them, and where we go from there are all crucial parts of the healing process.
At the highest ranks (doctor, professor) medicine is still a very white field, so I was excited to pick up this memoir by an African-American ER doctor, especially because there was a bunch of buzz around its publication.
The title is apt, as one could say that Harper has “broken” several times in her life. While her family situation looked great from the outside – a doctor’s family in a big house – it hid how horrifyingly abusive her father was, mostly to her mother. She managed to go to medical school herself, fell in love and got married, only to have her husband leave her right before moving to a different city. We follow her as she works at different hospitals and focuses on different parts of the job – administrative, patient care – as she comes to terms with it all.
I can’t go any farther in this review without mentioning that this was a buddy read with the wonderful Louise at the blog A Strong Belief in Wicker. She’s an emergency department doctor in Australia so we had a wonderful time dissecting the text on a medical level along with discussing Harper’s life experiences.
The most solid pro for The Beauty in Breaking is the writing. Some turns of phrase are beautiful, and she’s eloquent when talking about how racism in the medical system has affected her personally, as well as her patients. On that more surface, literary level I have little to complain about.
When it comes to medicine I have questions, though. There are some basic errors (for example, the Glasgow Coma Scale is scored 3-15, not 1-15) so I’m guessing the text wasn’t proofread for medical accuracy. Some of the patient scenarios didn’t make sense – why wasn’t a nurse called in to help with a particular procedure? Why is she ordering a head CT for a run of the mill headache?
While most of the patient stories are interesting and informative, several feel unrealistic. One conversation felt a roleplay scenario that’s part of my training as a medical interpreter – everything clearly said in logical order, with no meandering or backtracking or extraneous information. I’m guessing it was a composite patient, but even composite patients should talk like real people, right?
Harper finds peace via yoga, meditation, and Buddhism, which I’m glad for. I do yoga, too. But I don’t need to read detailed descriptions of her yoga class, and I was surprised that she talked to patients about their “spirit” as much as she did. I’m all for wellness and health in a general sense, but this tipped over into “woo-woo” too much for my liking.
All in all The Beauty in Breaking does a great job discussing certain issues beautifully, but if you’re in medicine yourself details will certainly needle you.
Thanks to Riverhead Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.