Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book 22: Promises Kept

Selecting book 22 was a challenge for me. I didn't particularly crave a fiction read, but I wanted to take a break from some of the other types of non-fiction I've been reading. So, I started going through the bookcases in the house, and came across Promises Kept.

I was able to meet the author, Dr. Jerald Watts, last year, and I'm lucky enough to own an autographed copy of Promises Kept, a memoir appropriately subtitled "A Southern Surgeon's reflections of mid-twentieth century medicine." Dr. Watts charmingly recounts his journey from eager student to senior resident in Atlanta in the 1950's and 1960's. Most of the reflections are simple essays, a page or two long, that provide a glimpse into the not so distant past of a young doctor and his work with Emory and Grady Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Watts has no agenda in recounting these stories. As an aspiring and later, practicing, surgeon, he made a promise to his patients beyond the Hippocratic Oath- he promised he would treat them with dignity and respect and do the best he could do for them. Having grown up and lived most of my life in the south, and several years in the Atlanta area, I found this memoir, this journey with Dr. Watts, and his professors, colleagues, and patients, to be fascinating. Watts remembers driving out to areas hard to access, which today would be a quick twenty minute trip on an expressway, to treat patients in their homes.

I love how this book doesn't gloss over the history of the south. I'm going to recount here a brief bit of the Grady History provided by Dr. Watts at the start of the book. Grady opened in 1892, the "first public, non-religion-affiliated, charity hospital," with separate, segregated facilities that became known colloquially as "The Gradys" (pp xxi). Today, Grady Hospital is a known landmark on the Downtown Connector, even defining part of the downtown corridor as "The Grady Curve". While the physicians treated all patients to the best of their ability, regardless of race, Watts recalls how a resident from an Ivy league school came to Grady in the 60's and insisted that on his watch, all patients would be addressed "by their last names and a proper salutation, a dignity they all deserve (p 195)" This was of course, common practice in the white section of Grady, but not with other patients. With this simple edict, this resident awakened a sense of social justice in the staff.

As I was reading this book, I thought about how so many television medical dramas try to make things so exciting, embellishing relatively innocuous injuries, creating drama between the staff. You know you are watching something that someone wrote to entertain you. I watched- and enjoyed- a lot of ER. But I liked Promises Kept better because of its authenticity. I felt Dr. Watts' sincerity in dealing with his patients. Grady was a charity hospital. He was not a physician there to earn money. He was there to help people who needed it, to the best of his abilities. He gives us glimpses into his fears, his mistakes, his challenges, and his victories. But he remains human and humble through all of them.

His style is straightforward. He uses medical terms, but provides a context for them to help a lay reader understand what's going on. As I was reading, I felt as though I could be just sitting across from Dr. Watts, listening to him share his memories. There's no pretension, no goal of using fifty cent words just to prove he knows them.

I used this word earlier, but I'm going to use it again. Promises Kept really is a charming read.

Note: The author of Promises Kept was kind enough to read this posting, and in a very gracious note to me, commented that he "wrote Promises, not so much as a memoir but as a story of the Gradys and those folks with whom I worked and the admirable service that Grady has provided for the indigent and those who had no place to go for their care."

As you can see, Dr. Watts is truly a special man- doing what is right, simply because it is right.

1 comment:

  1. Dear BookFetish,
    Thank you so much for your kind words. Dr. Watts (my Dad) is truly a different breed from most physicians and surgeons. As a child, I remember countless numbers of people coming up to him at Church, restaurants, etc. to thank him for fixing a hip, mending a broken arm, or some other ailment. So many doctors are proficient at medical care, but, as you alluded to, Dad went well beyond medical care - he cared about his patients. Makes you wish today's medical schools would implement a required class on the waning concept of bed-side manner! If so, they would need look no farther than Dad for the perfect example.
    Kind regards and good luck with your book journey! Jerry II