#CanLit Challenge Book 1: Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

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Title: Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures
Author: Vincent Lam
Publisher: Doubleday CA
Publication Date: 2006
Pages: 350, includes glossary
Literary Awards: Scotiabank Giller Prize winner (2006)
Source: Library, hardcover

“It is noteworthy how many doctors have become fiction writers. But medicine is, after all, a narrative art. Doctors and fiction writers both deal in extreme events; both have their fingers on the pulse of life and death, and neither is squeamish about gore on the floor.” -Margaret Atwood introduces Vincent Lam at the Giller Prize Ceremony, CTV Television (2006)

You can watch the clip from Vincent Lam’s website under highlights from the Giller Awards 2006.

Margaret Atwood’s introduction of Dr. Lam feels apropos considering the popularity of medical dramas and medical fiction.  However, without Atwood’s wisdom I doubt I would have ever made the same connection. Now that I’ve read the short stories and some Atwood novels and poetry I feel like they share a similar dark humour and vulnerability in their writing.

When I decided to read his book, I was curious about Vincent Lam. All I knew was that he was Chinese-Canadian. I didn’t even know he was a doctor! Since then, I’ve learned he did his medical training in Toronto, worked in international air evacuation, in expedition medicine on ships in the Arctic and Antarctic, and as an emergency physician. He’s lectured at U of T, works in addictions medicine, and writes award-winning novels! When does this man find time to sleep?

What initially drew me to this group of short stories was the title and I couldn’t help but do a little research in advance of reading. According to Wikipedia, bloodletting is the ancient tradition of withdrawing blood to prevent illness and restore health. I was curious as to what this book was going to be about. Were the stories going to be about the practice of ancient medicine or the use of bloodletting as a treatment? This brought me back 2012 when I went to visit my soju-loving friend, Hailie, who I had met in Korea. She is a couple of years older than me and owns her own cafe. I visited her regularly and she would encourage me to drink soju. I would suffer awful soju-induced headaches, so she suggested a simple treatment. I thought she meant Advil or Tylenol, which I have no problem taking. She meant taking my index finger, wrapping an elastic band around it, and pricking my finger. Blood would trickle down my finger and she swore up and down that I would feel a lot better. Instead, I became lightheaded and nauseous. Needless to say, the “treatment” didn’t work.

The twelve short stories follow the lives of four doctors as they work their way through med school and beyond. The first story, How to Get in to Medical School, Part 1, introduces study partners Ming and Fitzgerald as she tries to teach him proper study habits and attempts to ignore a budding romantic relationship because it would devastate her traditional Chinese-Canadian family. I hadn’t read any of the reviews yet. I had only watched Atwood’s award ceremony introduction, so the only preconception I had was that she thought it was good. Once I started reading, I figured I would be more bothered by the medical descriptions than by the relationships of some of the characters, especially Karl’s possessiveness of Ming, his younger cousin. Months later this relationship still disturbs me and I’m still not sure the point of it.

In Take All of Murphy, med students Ming, Sri, and Chen face a moral dilemma as they dissect a cadaver. The cadaver had faded RCAF and biblical tattoos on his arm. Sri felt strongly that you need to “respect a man’s symbols” (43) and to cut around the tattoos, whereas, Ming wanted to follow the illustrated manual. I thought this must be the sort of dilemma that doctors face all the time and I don’t know how they make those difficult decisions at all. Additionally, the graphic dissections brought me back to 10th or 11th grade when my classmates and I were graded on dissecting a pig – the plastic-y feeling of flesh, the stench of formaldehyde, and how grossed out we all were. So, this is just a warning because, in my opinion, Lam gets more graphic than that.

The Long Migration is about Chen travelling to Brisbane to predict his ill grandfather’s demise and his family’s sordid past. According to Lam, it is the only story in the collection based on fact and is about the summer he spent visiting his ill grandfather in Brisbane (Lin Stranberg). I found this interesting because this story seems the least realistic. Chen admits that there is a considerable amount of hearsay about his grandfather’s life. The grandfather may or may not have had an affair with his school master’s wife. He may have married Chen’s grandmother because he loved her or because he owed her brother a favour. He gambles and drinks too much, married four women (none are mentioned by name) and claimed he didn’t speak English well, yet owned an ESL school.

One of the last stories, Night Flight, focuses on Dr. Fitzgerald flying from Canada to Guatemala to bring home a tourist who suffered a stroke and is now in a coma. When they arrive, he learns from the attending physician that they didn’t have CT scans (the machine was broken) and a neurosurgeon wouldn’t see the patient, Mr. Amiel without one. After the patient dies in the air, his wife asks him if the quality of treatment would have been better at home. He seems genuinely sympathetic and lies with “the greatest tenderness [he has] within [him].” (262) Dr. Fitzgerald, although intoxicated, recognizes a vulnerable moment between himself and the man’s wife. This moment reminded me of an article by a surgeon (I think) whose father was admitted to the hospital and the family was bluntly told by the doctor that he was going to die. The point the author was trying to make was doctors should be taught how to communicate difficult news to families. Overall, I thought this story could be disturbingly similar to reality, yet at times it was also touching.

I’ll admit — and I doubt this is of popular opinion — I wasn’t in love with this book. For me, it was only somewhat readable and took me a long time to get through it. There were some very beautifully written parts, but I’m still glad that I borrowed it from the library rather than buying it.

Have you read Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures? What did you think?

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