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Book Review 

What Patients Taught Me: A Medical Student's Journey
by Dr. Audrey Young
by Diane Molleson

Fresh out of Berkeley, 23-year-old Audrey Young embarks on a journey through medical school that leads her to some of the most remote places in the Pacific Northwest. A student at the University of Washington, Young enrolls in a program to train medical students to practice as rural doctors in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. Working in these rural settings teaches Young that "everything important comes from the patient's story."

Young's emphasis on the human element of medicine makes her memoir refreshing and perceptive, if at times overly earnest. Her narrative takes readers through the hardships and rewards of her rotations in Bethel, Alaska (family practice); Pocatello, Idaho (pediatrics); Missoula, Mont. (internal medicine); and Seattle, where she is often on her feet "36 hours in one stretch" at a veterans hospital.

Young's responsibilities increase with each rotation, and she is drawn more and more into the lives of her patients: Suzy, a 31-year-old with severe asthma who is determined to keep her job as a cleaning lady even though it triggers her attacks; Carla, a 26-year-old who has been suffering from Crohn's Disease ever since she was a teenager and couldn't find a doctor in rural Montana who would take her ailment seriously; and a cancer patient determined to die on his own terms who teaches Young to resist the temptation to do too much.

At the end of her third year, Young travels to the African country of Swaziland where 40 percent of the population is infected with HIV and the life expectancy is 39 years. She treats patients with AIDS, tuberculosis and diabetes who don't have access to prescription drugs. There, doctors have to choose whom to help, and the drugs are only given to those with the best chances of survival.

Young's experience in Africa is the most immediate and memorable part of her story. Throughout the book, her straightforward and observant descriptions of her patients and their conditions are compelling and give readers a valuable glimpse of human suffering and resilience.

Young's writing reflects her philosophy of medicine. It takes a back seat to the patients' stories and doesn't draw attention to itself. Young sounds like a wonderful doctor. Those looking, however, for a less incessantly serious account of medical training -- and life -- may want to turn to other writers.

Publication date: 05/05/05

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