Picks and Pans Review: Vital Signs

updated 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Fitzhugh Mullan

The author was a 32-year-old public health physician at a New Mexico clinic in 1975 when he discovered in checking his own chest X-ray that there was a large white cloud visible. The experts he sought out diagnosed it as cancer. He went into the naval hospital at Bethesda, Md. for an operation and almost died. The surgeons couldn't remove all the cancer, so there followed weeks of painful radium and chemotherapy treatments. These not only had excruciating side effects, but also destroyed part of his chest so that it had to be rebuilt in a feat of plastic surgery. He found himself experiencing firsthand all the tests, treatment, care and carelessness that his patients had undergone. He and his wife had a 3-year-old daughter, and his wife became pregnant again and gave birth to a second daughter. Two years later they decided to adopt a son—never knowing whether or not his cancer was cured. This book, full of simple truths, has the power to move a reader mightily: "I anticipated being a different person after what I had been through. I had come so close to death that I imagined my perspective on life would be different. I fantasized that certain personal pettinesses of mine would disappear and that I would now be wiser and more temperate than I had been before.... Much to my dismay, things were not different." Mullan, now well past the five-year danger period and planning an African safari, doesn't spare himself—or the reader—anything. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $12.50)

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