Excerpt from Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Dear Life

A Doctor's Story of Love and Loss

by Rachel Clarke

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke X
Dear Life by Rachel Clarke
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  • Published:
    Sep 2020, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Print Excerpt

Dear Life

For a child of the 1970s, death by Dalek, werewolf, cyborg or shark was the absolute highlight of British television, the grislier the better. We knew our glee at the gore was faintly indecent, but this was celluloid make-believe, fantasy dying, and hence a permissible pleasure.

Once, though, around this time, Dad told me a story that made death – perhaps for the first time in my life – feel unnervingly close to home. My father was a physician for forty years, most of them practising as a general practitioner in an era when family doctors cared for their local community night and day, every day of the year. Before that, like his own father before him, he had sailed the high seas as a medic in the Royal Navy, and his seafaring stories transfixed me. His speciality, in my view, imbued him with the dark arts of a witch doctor. As a naval anaesthetist, he possessed the ominous power, via mysterious vapours, to 'put people to sleep' – which was, I noted, what eventually happened to my friends' pet dogs, a sleep they never woke up from.

One day, Dad began to tell me about an occasion when his naval warship was touring the South China Sea. I adored Dad's medical stories, hanging upon his every word as he told and retold, at my insistence, all my favourites. Somehow, whatever his patients threw his way – drama, trauma, poignancy, despair – Dad seemed to hold their lives in his hands with confidence, omniscience and a distinct hint of deity. He may have seen himself as only an ordinary doctor – as run of the mill, nothing special at all – but to my child's eyes he was the undisputed hero of his tales.

This story, however, was not anything like that. Dad was only a young man himself, just a few years out of medical school, when the news filtered up to his ship's sickbay that an explosion had ripped through the boiler room. Two junior ratings had been caught in the blast. 'They were even younger than me,' Dad told me. 'No more than eighteen, nineteen years old.' A faulty pressure valve had allowed a lethal build-up of steam which, when it blew, flung the lads across the room and burned most of their skin from their bodies.

'Did they die?' I asked him, unable to imagine how injuries so dramatic could be compatible with survival.

'No. At least, not to begin with. That was what made it so awful.'

Dad relayed what happened next with such absorption he forgot he was talking to a child. The two casualties were successfully dragged from the scene and rushed, still alive, to the sickbay. There, he and his senior doctor worked furiously to stabilise each patient. They dressed the burns, assessed the airways, obtained intravenous access, and started infusions of fluids and morphine.

'What's morphine?' I asked.

'A very strong painkiller. Although, in fact, they didn't need it. They were barely in pain at all.'

Knowing how excruciating mere sunburn could be, this confused me. Dad's explanation was blunt: 'You need the nerve endings in your skin to feel pain there. They didn't have any skin left, so they didn't have any nerve endings. They were pain free. Chatting, Rachel, laughing. They were full of relief. They thought they'd had a lucky escape.'

Something in the way my father said this caused me to sit up and lean closer. He was talking as though he was back there.

'We were hundreds of miles from shore. We had to sail to Hong Kong to get the lads to a hospital. It was going to take at least a day, maybe two. My job was to stay with them, comfort them. They didn't know they were dying. Why would they? They weren't in any pain. Their eyes were bandaged so they hadn't seen their injuries. But I knew. I knew that full-thickness burns over this extent of the body was fatal. I knew they'd lose consciousness long before we reached shore. My job, most of all, was to lie to them.'

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From Dear Life by Rachel Clarke. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.

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