The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Living Fiction

by Tricia Dower

I find myself inhabiting the world of Vincent Lam’s 2006 Giller winning Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures after an ambulance takes me to Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital at 3:30 a.m. on October 1st.

I had finished Lam’s book only a few weeks before. It’s fresh in my mind as I note the speed at which a procession of efficient and reassuring nurses hook me up to an IV, measure the electrical activity of my heart and test my urine and blood. I wonder if their uniforms denote some sort of hierarchy: are the solid whites and solid blues more or less experienced than the ones with patterned smocks?

I think of “Before Light” in Lam’s collection, a story about a doctor who gets increasingly desperate for sleep as his night shift advances. “From midnight to three is running time,” Lam writes. “The patients pace the waiting room, or shake their stretchers. This part of the night is for fighting. It has escaped the civility of day and evening, but has not yet slipped into the dreaming, drugged morning before light.”

In the emergency holding bay, a curtain keeps me from seeing the man in the next stall but I hear his deep, tortured moans. When he gets quiet I worry until a forceful voice says, “Wake up, Artie [not his real name]. Why are you here?” The doctor, I presume. I wonder if he’s as tired as the one Lam writes about, the one whose “eyelids are determined to snap shut like springs, like traps.” I wonder if it pisses him off that Artie is sleeping when he has to stay awake. Judging from what I overhear, cocaine has made it impossible for Artie to tell the doctor the correct year or what city he’s in: “Kelowna? Vancouver?” A flurry of nurses descend on his stall and I’m wheeled away into a storage room; left to study shelves of medical supplies with labels like intubation tray and open thoracotomy tray. There’s a glossary in Lam’s book. I appreciate his not interrupting the narrative to define all the terms he uses for verisimilitude. One day I’ll write a book with a glossary and include “verisimilitude.”

My pain comes in waves but I know from the frequency at which the nurses check my vitals that I’m not a critical case. I don’t see a doctor until 10 a.m. He’s all flowing white coat and business, pushing me where it hurts, giving no clue as to what he thinks, departing as briskly as he arrives. I wonder if he thinks about himself the way Lam’s Fitzgerald does: “Although he longed to shed the medical shell when he was alone, it was frightening to try to remember how to be anything else in the presence of others.”

A nurse tells me the doctor has ordered a CAT scan which I’ll get as soon as they can fit me in. After the scan, the doctor asks the surgeon to examine me, but the surgeon is in the operating room cutting things out of people. By the time he stops by, at around 6 p.m., it’s been almost twenty-four hours since I had anything to eat or drink and I’ve been demoted to a hallway on a busy flight path. A young, short, bouncy man, the surgeon says he needs to remove my appendix and look around inside me for whatever else might be wrong. Tonight, he says, maybe at 9:30, maybe later. Won’t you be tired? I ask. Oh no, he says with a confident laugh.

I wonder if he drives a Mercedes like Lam’s Dr. Chen who says, “I should be embarrassed, but really I’m not. You see, just below the silver paint is a layer of feigned sheepishness, which masks a sense of justification, because really I feel like this car is my due. Shouldn’t I have a kick-ass car? Don’t I deserve it?” I decide confidence is a good trait in a surgeon.

Everything happens very quickly after that. I sign a paper that says I understand I can die and agree that my family won't sue. A nurse takes inventory of my valuables and removable parts. When she asks if I have a glass eye, I joke about my wooden leg, and we share a laugh. I don’t meet the anaesthetist until I’m wheeled into the operating room. I hope he isn’t a secret drinker like Fitzgerald.

Several of Lam’s stories feature a female physician whose last name is Ming (Lam’s doctors only have last names) and one story has a supervising woman physician named Miniadis. Both are tough skinned, even cruel at times. The few nurses who make brief appearances in the collection are softer, possessing first, but not last, names. During my stay, I see only male doctors and female nurses. They have separately, clearly marked territories. Doctors order medication but nurses decide whether you get eggs or porridge for breakfast. Nurses get intimately involved with your bodily fluids and determine whether your stomach is soft enough for you to leave the hospital.

“We do things they don’t know about,” one nurse tells me. “We’re the ones who have to take care of people when they’re through with them.” Nurses are the soothing whispers at night, wheeling their blood pressure monitors from bed to bed on the ward. Doctors are hearty voices making brief appearances to give advice the nurses later correct.

I ask one of the nurses if she has read Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures. She hasn’t but she bought it for her father because she saw a patient reading it and laughing out loud. “Don’t you want to laugh out loud?” I ask her. “Not about that,” she says.

Photo of thirty-two-year-old Dr. Vincent Lam in montage above was taken by his wife, Dr. Margarita Lam Antoniades. He was born in London, Ontario, and grew up in Ottawa. His family is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam. He’s an emergency physician who also does international air evacuation work and expedition medicine on Arctic and Antarctic ships. He lives the stories in Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures.


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Thanks Tricia, I bought this book for other people (hinting that I'd like it loaned back to me to read down the road) but it looks like I'm going to have to get my own copy. I had no idea it was funny, too, on top of everything else. I'm there!

Thu Oct 18, 02:14:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Andrew, I don't recall laughing out loud, myself, but a few stories are quite amusing, especially the opening one -- a subtle, courtship dance between two very serious young people. Also, Fitzgerald gets himself into a few pretty laughable (albeit pathetic) situations.

Thu Oct 18, 07:36:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

What an amazing account of your experience, Tricia. Glad you're living, btw! Wonder what Lam would think of this brilliant introduction to the world of his book. You're a damn fine writer, Tricia Dower.

Thu Oct 18, 08:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Wow, thanks, Tony. I doubt that Lam will see this. He's probably busy reading all of his news clippings and reviewing his book sales: -- 200,000 in Canada at last count, and the book will soon appear in the States.

Thu Oct 18, 08:34:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

This is a fantastic post (as always). I've got Lam's book here somewhere. I've misplaced it. You've made me want to hunt it down.

So glad you're better, Tricia!

Thu Oct 18, 09:39:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Mel. I hope you find the book and enjoy it.

Thu Oct 18, 11:37:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Chumplet said...

Only a writer can recall such detail when any other person would only have the words, "Make it go away!" screaming in her head.

Fri Oct 19, 09:53:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

You're right, Chumplet. We're always recording, aren't we? Thanks for reading.

Fri Oct 19, 01:14:00 pm GMT-4  

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