Dr. Bill Yancey, MD paints a creative yet candid narrative of young resident Addison Wolfe’s maturation as a physician in his book, “The Reluctant Intern.” Based on his own experiences as a physician, Dr. Yancey constructs a platform of fictional realism grounded in the brutal realities of the culture in medicine whilst coloring it with an appropriate dash of creativity. We accompany Dr. Wolfe through the vicissitudes of his entire residency, highlighted through Dr. Yancey’s elegant narration.
True to the title of the novel, the once-aspiring-astronaut, Dr. Wolfe, is shown to often reflect on his perceived singular experience of apathy as well as lack of fervor to medicine as he plows through the unforgiving grounds of medical internship. As a sprouting medical student myself, while “The Reluctant Intern” reads slightly dishearteningly in contrast to my eager anticipation of my future clinical years, it is apparent that Dr. Wolfe metaphorically embodies the inevitable attrition that is necessitated by survival in the stressful and arduous path to becoming a physician. Whether we were aspiring astronauts or otherwise, many of us embark on this journey bright-eyed and brimming with anticipation, which drastically contrasts the picture of medical experience that Dr. Yancey paints.
It is interesting, then, that Dr. Yancey chose to characterize the protagonist medical intern so unusually. From the perspective of a green medical student, Dr. Wolfe appears to be the exception in the medical student body, but in some ways, he also seems to portray the results of one who has survived in this harsh, medical environment. As Dr. Wolfe and his colleagues earn their stripes in the hospital, the collective experiences of the interns show the unglamorous and often thankless nature of medicine that resonates in each member of this complex network. While these interwoven stories of each character’s life reveal the brutal and often barren conditions nurtured in the culture of medicine, they simultaneously paint a sense of humanism to the life of an intern. In many ways, the major struggles in the training of a physician involves the balance between the hostile expectations at work and the complexities of mundane life. In a simple and unceremonious manner, Dr. Yancey strips down the myths and misconceptions surrounding physicians created by the populace and mass media and plainly illustrates the daily obstacles that every human being must overcome, including the medical intern.
In drawing the brutality and humanity in medicine, “The Reluctant Intern” provides insight to the unique isolation that we all experience at some point in our lives as training physicians. Perhaps the purpose of this unusual character calls on the parts of us that we have long forgotten — the non-medical colors that construct much of our personalities. Inundating in the amnion of medicine day in and day out becomes an easy excuse to dilute out the quirks and eccentricities outside of medicine that make us unique individuals. This forgotten dream of an astronaut perhaps alludes — begs on us — to the other passions that we had set aside for humbler, “more realistic” paths. It calls on the wild what-ifs in us that sometimes shine through in our medical journey — it calls on the artists, the musicians, the engineers, the literary scholars and remind us of the different streaks in each of our hair. The reluctant intern may be reluctant, but he is by no means, unusual.
And while we are all facing the same contextual struggles, we are very much alone in this personal experience. It is a contradictory sense of isolation in which we endure these growing pains in each of our own ways. Dr. Yancey beautifully captures that sense of individual desperation and internal struggles that we all seem to privately wrestle with, and consequently become in many ways ourselves reluctant. The existential crises that each of the characters experience, whether it is co-existing with unideal superiors, juggling the life of residency with upholding a family, shining in excellence without capturing hostility, or braving the social hurdles as a female physician, are all both unique and universal in their own way. They all depict the ever-prevalent power struggle between the life within and outside of medicine, proving once again that medicine is not a stand-alone circumstance that we can choose without the impact of our humanistically messy lives.
The complex and gripping nest of stories provides a honest and insightful perspective to the often-silent aspects of medicine. It is definitely worth a read for individuals in all levels of medicine because it reminds us of both the reasons we invested in this tortuous path, as well as the important, yet sometimes forgotten aspects of life that exist outside of medicine.