Growing up, Atul Gawande wanted to be a rock star. He told The New York Times: "I wanted to be a rock star. I played guitar and wrote songs and even had a couple of club shows. I was just terrible." The irony, of course, is that at 41, Atul Gawande is, indeed, a rock star - just not the musical kind.
Gawande, winner of a 2006 MacArthur "genius" grant, is both a star surgeon and a star writer, whose work at his Boston hospital and in The New Yorker has won rave reviews (his 2003 book, "Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science" was well received, not the least of all in my home, where my wife is a gushing fan). And his second book, a collection of New Yorker and New England Journal of Medicine essays - "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance" (Amazon link) - is launching this week, with a big profile splashed over the front page of the NYT Arts section. Read the piece here and see a slideshow, called "Good Hands," of Gawande at work (curiously, none of the pictures of him in the print or online editions shows him without his mask - just like the cover of his book).
You can read more about "Better" at Gawande.com (his publicist is Sally McCartin, samccartin at aol - given the volume of requests she is getting, am sure she won't be able to reply to everyone). See the full book tour schedule below (it's a 14-city tour). If you have never read a piece by him before, I suggest reading "Piecework: Medicine's Money Problem," a 4,000-word reported essay on the U.S. health system's fiscal underpinning that's classic Gawande).
Earlier today, Gawande answered five quick questions from SAJAforum. Answers below. Post your thoughts in the comments section below.
FIVE QUESTIONS FOR ATUL GAWANDE, M.D.
SAJAforum: You are really showing up the rest of us who can barely keep one career going. How in the world do you manage to be both a successful surgeon and prolific writer?
Gawande: I don't honestly know. Everyday I just try to get a little something done.
SAJAforum: How did this new book come about? And tell us how it's different from "Complications."
Gawande: I found after I completed my surgery training that I was thinking about our imperfection. in medicine from a new perspective. Complications was written by
someone just out of medical schoool trying to understand why medicine is imperfect. Better is written from someone who has finally become competent but
is wondering, given our imperfection and the complexity that medicine now requires, how does one actually become great at what one does. The answer has both mechanical and moral dimensions to it. And a striking finding is how different and larger the lessons are from sports and business, where we usually turn for lessons about performance.
SAJAforum: You have a couple of South Asian characters in the book. Tell us about them.
Gawande: There are four I write about in this book. But the one I write about at greatest
length is Pankaj Bhatnagar, a physician and field director with the World Health
Organization that I travelled with as he responded to an outbreak of polio in
Karnataka. This was in many ways an ordinary man. But he had learned how to
succeed in doing an extraordinary thing: marshalling a seemingly impossible
effort to go door-to-door to vaccinate 4.2 million children in a 50,000-square-mile area in just 48 hours. Remarkable.
SAJAforum: How has the MacArthur changed your life?
Gawande: I'm still figuring it out. The biggest change so far, though, is in how my
colleagues in surgery regard the work I do. For a long time, they regard the
writing, I think, as something of a hobby--a neat hobby, to be sure, but a
hobby. The MacArthur foundation saw the research and writing and surgery the way
I do, though: as an integrated whole. There are answers of importance to be
found in each kind of work and the MacArthur may make it possible for me to make
writing a significant part of my day job rather than something I do just around
SAJAforum: There seem to be a lot of doctors who are also writers, journalists,
etc. Any advice to physicians who are considering doing some writing?
Gawande: There does seem to be a sudden surge of physicians communicating in some way or
another --through television, fiction, journalism, book-writing. And the great
thing is to see the uncommonly high level of that work at present. It raises the
stakes for all of us. My advice for would-be physician-writers? It's the same as
for any would-be writer: write! And find somewhere to publish - whether it's a
newsletter, an internet blog, or a magazine. The key is to write, put it out,
and then learn from what went right or wrong in order to try again.
[SAJAforum note: Here's how the NYT captured Gawande's relationship with writing in today's story:
He began contributing little pieces to Slate about 10 years ago, while still a resident, he said, even though he thought he had no particular aptitude and had never written for publication before. He took one writing course in college, and the instructor told him that he could write a sentence but had nothing to say. “Slate was perfect for me,” he explained, “because it enabled me to fly under the radar. It was just like going through surgical residency. I did 30 columns for them, and it was like doing 30 gallbladders. Then I had to learn how to get comfortable with 4,000-word and then 8,000-word essays for The New Yorker.”
He added: “I now feel like writing is the most important thing I do. In some ways, it’s harder than surgery. But I do think I’ve found a theme in trying to understand failure and what it means in the world we live in, and how we can improve at what we do.” ]
[ Book tour schedule - see updates at Gawande.com ]
(cover on right from March 2007 issue of The Indian American)
04/03/2007: U.S. and Canada Release Date for Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance (Metropolitan Books)
04/09: Boston 06:00 PM
HARVARD BOOK STORE sponsored event at THE BRATTLE THEATRE -- Discussion & Signing
40 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
04/10: New York 07:00 PM
BARNES & NOBLE -- Discussion & Signing
1972 Broadway - Lincoln Center
New York, NY 10023
04/11: Chicago 06:00 PM
SEMINARY COOP sponsored event at
INTERNATIONAL HOUSE -- Discussion & Signing
1414 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
04/12: St. Louis 12:00 PM
WASHINGTON U SCH. OF MEDICINE -- Lecture/Signing
04/12: St. Louis 07:00 PM
LEFT BANK BOOKS -- Discussion & Signing
399 North Euclid
St. Louis, MO 63108
04/13: Minneapolis 07:30 PM
MAGERS & QUINN sponsored event at
LYNDALE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST -- Discussion & Signing
810 W. 31st St.
04/16: Taiwan Release Date for Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance (Commonwealth)
04/16: Houston 12:00 PM
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS MEDICAL SCHOOL -- Lecture/signing
04/17: Denver 07:30 PM
TATTERED COVER BOOKSTORE -- Discussion & Signing
2526 East Colfax Avenue
Denver, Colorado 80206
04/18: Washington 07:00 PM
POLITICS & PROSE -- Discussion/Signing
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008
04/23: Detroit 11:15 AM
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN/FLINT -- Lecture/signing
04/30: San Francisco 12:00 PM
UC SAN FRANCISCO -- Lecture/signing
04/30: San Francisco 07:30 PM
KEPLER'S BOOKS -- Discussion & Signing
1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025
05/01: San Francisco 06:00 PM
COMMONWEALTH CLUB -- Lecture & Signing
595 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
05/02: Portland 12:00 PM
OREGON HEALTH & SCIENCE UNIVERSITY -- Lecture & Signing
05/02: Portland 07:30 PM
POWELL'S CITY OF BOOKS, BURNSIDE -- Discussion & Signing
1005 West Burnside
Portland, OR 97209
05/03: Seattle 12:00 PM
AMAZON.COM --Discussion & Signing
1200 12th Avenue, South/Pacific Medical Building
8th Floor AV Room
Seattle, WA 98108
05/03: Seattle 07:00 PM
ELLIOTT BAY BOOK CO. sponsored event at
SEATTLE PUBLIC CENTRAL LIBRARY -- Discussion & Signing
1000 Fourth Avenue
05/08: Newton, MA 7:30 PM
NEWTONVILLE BOOKS -- Books and Brews Event
296 Walnut Street
Newton, MA 02460
05/14: Philadelphia 06:00 PM
UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA MEDICAL SCHOOL
JOHNS HOPKINS MEDICAL SCHOOL
05/31: UK, Australia, and New Zealand Release Date
06/01: India Release Date for Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance (Penguin Books)
Post your thoughts in the comments section below.