Itís rare to find a non-fiction writer with the lyrical power of Frank Huyler. I picked up The Blood of Strangers expecting a typical dissertation about the politics of medical care or maybe a discussion of emergency treatment techniques. What I found was a series of very personal stories that intrigue, trouble and move the reader. Only one hundred and sixty pages -- I found myself unable to put it aside and read it in one sitting. I canít imagine doing it any other way. The content is deep and thought provoking, yet the style is lean. There are only as many notes as it takes to play the tune -- no more, no less. The effect is to make the eye fly over the page while the mind churns in recognition. From time to time I found myself murmuring, "Ah, yes, Iíve felt this too."
Frank Huyler is an emergency room physician. He works in blood and guts and the human psyche like a corporal Van Gogh creating pictures that are weirdly beautiful. The Blood of Strangers consists of 28 short bursts of emotion held together by a few common characters -- the most important being the author himself. Each is a tableau illuminating some element of humanity -- patients and doctors included.
For example in a short chapter called "The Needle," Huyler explores the exhilaration he feels after saving a young manís life. His final sentence tugs at the heart: "I knew he would leave whole, and I sat there in the dark for awhile, watching the red and blue lights of the monitor, savoring him, taking something for myself."
In "The Prisoner," Huyler describes a dying patient -- a man who in life had been a drug addict and a murderer. His family has created an alternate truth about his life. To pretend that this criminal who caused so much pain and suffering to himself and others was a noble character angers Dr. Huyler. Even so, when the time comes to turn off the machines and let this man die, he is conflicted. From that point on, the prose is simple -- almost technical. He describes what he did and the physicality of death. His language creates a sense of emotional distance and I am reminded of a line in To Kill A Mockingbird where Miss Maudie explains to Scout that Atticus Finch was "born to do our unpleasant chores for us."
In "Difference of Opinion," Dr. Huyler talks about treating a young man whose rodeo injury led to pneumonia. Over days and weeks, his condition deteriorates. One attending physician felt the boy was going to die, the other was sure he would live. Their alternating day routines meant that on every other day, treatment was relaxed. On the remaining days, it was aggressive. Throughout Dr. Huylerís rotation, neither approach altered the course of destiny. The cowboyís condition worsened. Eventually, he went on to a new assignment -- losing track of the patient. Then one day about six months later, he bumped into him -- healthy and well -- a testament to hope and alternative opinions.
Other stories explore things like guilt, human frailty and heroics. There is tenderness to Dr. Huylerís prose that belies his claim of wearied distance. Physical realities like stinking feet, bubbling infections and maggoty wounds donít hide the humanity of his patients from him. Neither does drug addiction, exhaustion and mental illness prevent him from seeing his colleagues as lonely, struggling, weak, magnificent healers. He is a master at presenting the ambiguities of the ER to readers who live in a more black and white world. This book is a definite keeper and Iíll be watching for more offerings from this author. Read The Blood of Strangers! Youíll be glad you did.