You Are What You Read

erin_helms_wht By Erin Helms, MD

I hear it all the time: How can I read books about medicine when I’m constantly knee deep in it? On the surface, it may seem like an unhealthy overindulgence, but there is something about reading that provides an indispensable supplement to my clinical education. Instead of contributing to burnout, I’ve found that it helps me recharge, as long as I make sure not to replace the other genres that I love, such as fantasy, historical fiction, biographies, and graphic novels. By thinking about medicine on a different level or from a new viewpoint, we can become better clinicians by reading beyond the journals and textbooks. Here are a few of the many books that have been especially influential in leading me to change my major (twice) in pursuit of my passion, guiding me toward a career in medicine (and subsequently family medicine), and inspiring my development as a physician.


Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi (

An entertaining book about both history and genetics? Be still, my heart! The way in which Leroi describes gene function is almost poetic. He speaks reverently of those affected by serious mutations and illuminates how much we have learned from visible variations of the norm. This book is in a category all its own, transcending the territory usually covered by the popular science genre. As a college student at NC State, I read it on a beach with no dust jacket, in hopes that passersby would assume it was something more trendy. Well, I’m no longer embarrassed to admit it. In fact, it’s the kind of story that led me to get involved in the History of Medicine Club at UNC. I thought my education was leading me to a lab, but reading this book and others like it (along with my less than stellar pipette skills and my lonely days working with E. coli instead of people) made me realize that I wanted to interact with illness at the level of the person and their story, not the cell.

And the Band Played On

And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts (

I don’t use the word ‘epic’ lightly, but I’m going to call this book epic. I can best describe it as a memoir of HIV. My med school advisor, an infectious disease specialist, kept a copy in her office. I asked her to borrow it one day, and it consumed my free time for an entire week and my thoughts for much longer. We are called to advocate for our patients, and I hope to emulate the care the providers in this book gave to those seen as untouchables when no one else would. My decision to go into primary care became clearer as I read it: I want to be on the front line as a patient advocate.

 The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Ann Fadiman (

 This is the story of a Hmong child whose cultural background affects every aspect of her diagnosis and treatment. This account brings home the importance of the patient’s story, culture, and family in the context of his or her care. Once again, I wanted to do this! Noticing a trend yet? Maybe I should find a field where I get to know people’s stories? Where I take care of them within the construct of a community and family?

The Center Cannot Hold


The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks (

 Elyn Saks leads a successful professional and personal life despite her schizophrenia. She writes about her disease with such profound insight and honesty that, as the reader, you feel like you can truly relate. No amount of textbook reading, lectures, or even clinical rotations could come close to bringing the understanding and empathy for mental illness that her story does.


 The House of God

The House of God by Samuel Shem (

This book provides a satirical look at residency training in the 70s and, in my opinion, is a necessity for anyone in medical training or working in a hospital. I read it before applying to medical school (“How hilariously exaggerated!”) and as a third year medical student (“Some residents may act that way, but surely not me!”), and I plan to read it again now that I’m in residency (“There may be more truth to this than I’d like to admit!”). Medical training has come a long way, but this is a good reminder of our tendency toward cynicism when faced with death, illness, frustration, and exhaustion. It’s all satire, and I’m so glad we don’t train/think/behave like that! However, I can relate to the frustration of that page at 6 am after 30 hours awake and no dinner. Regardless, I love what I do! My attitude should reflect that, even after the most difficult days.

Erin Helms, MD is a second year Family Medicine Resident at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

2 thoughts on “You Are What You Read

  1. Great post! Of the above, I’ve only read The House of God, sadly, but will pick the others up. If wonderful reads about family medicine interest you, I recommend David Loxterkamp’s “The Measure of My Days” (the book that is responsible for my becoming a family physician) and (if you can find it) a wonderful uniquely-written novel “The Case of Dr Sachs.”


  2. I totally agree with your thoughts on the importance of refreshing your enthusiasm for your work, especially when you are working with patients, students, etc. It is so easy to get burned-out out and forget why you chose your career path. Staying up to date and encouraged to keep going is essential to your line of work, and other careers that require patience and compassion. Great article! I love your writing style! It is very light and energetic! 🙂


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