Seven Signs of Life review: Bold, courageous and most welcome
Aoife Abbey gives voice to the complexity of what it means to be a human being
Author Aoife Abbey does not shy away from personal vulnerability in her window into the inner world of a junior doctor. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Seven Signs of Life
Over the past number of years a genre in literature referred to as medical-literature has evolved. This evolution is in part a response to people’s curiosity concerning medicine, but it’s more than that. There seems to be a curiosity concerning the emotional life of people who work in medicine.
Aoife Abbey’s Seven Signs of Life is the story of the emotional life of a young medical doctor who is training in intensive care. It is a frank, heartfelt and unself-conscious window into the inner world of a junior doctor.
In the course of Seven Signs of Life, Abbey is described as a “lion” by one of her colleagues. Her honesty, determination and forthrightness are indeed lion-hearted. The lion-hearted Abbey is a woman in a traditionally male-dominated world. In such a context she gives voice to the complexity of what it means to be a human being. Such an articulation is bold, courageous and most welcome.
Abbey skilfully demonstrates that our internal emotional world is anything but linear
Abbey does not shy away from her personal vulnerability, which is in stark contrast to the sometimes macho medical world of which she is part. She does this by inhabiting a paradoxical innocence and bravery and, in doing so, offers a different way to exist in an sometimes brutal world. She skilfully demonstrates that our internal emotional world is anything but linear.
Each of the seven chapters that make up Seven Signs of Life has an emotion as its title. There are times when this structure is a little clunky and seems to restrict rather than enhance the narrative. Nonetheless, Abbey dexterously describes a range of emotions common to all humans: fear, grief, joy, distraction, anger, disgust and hope. She then unpacks them in a somewhat confessional poetic style chapter by chapter.
In many ways what Abbey does in Seven Signs of Life with great sensitivity and ease is to convey the great and simple psychological truth that we do not experience discrete, neat emotions. We tend to experience a multitude of emotions at any one time.
Abbey imparts a wisdom concerning human emotional life that is sophisticated, and also simple and poignant. She describes being “ambushed by grief” following the death of a patient and says “life didn’t follow the rules of whatever vague, illogical structure we use to hold together our shaky universe. It is because they remind us of how little we can really control.”
Abbey touchingly describes the first time she verified the death of a patient and how she was “all grown up” but still needed to phone her mam and cry. Such an unguarded and age-appropriate response is an endearing glimpse into the youthfulness of the author.
A youthfulness that is juxtaposed by an almost disconcerting wisdom when, for example, she describes breaking bad news to patients and gets to the metaphysical underpinning of such a task when she says: “Sometimes I think that part of the trick to breaking bad news well might be having the strength to accept that you are actually breaking something.”
Many of us working in healthcare come face to face with the darker, distressing and sometimes violent aspect of humanity at a relatively young age. This coming face to face with such realities in the early stages of one’s career can seem at times to be too much too soon.
Abbey is brave; she is lion-hearted in her no-holes-barred account of what it is like to care for a living
Abbey is no exception. She walks the reader through her emotional reaction when treating a convicted rapist for example. She recounts the eye contact that happens with terminally ill people with an almost disturbing precision. It will be fascinating to see how she writes, and I hope she does, about such events as her career matures.
Abbey is brave; she is lion-hearted in her no-holes-barred account of what it is like to care for a living. In Seven Signs of Life she courageously embodies a young doctor in touch with her vulnerability and her strength. If she is representative of an emerging generation of healthcare professionals, there is reason to be optimistic for the future of healthcare.
Dr Paul D’Alton is principal clinical psychologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital and associate professor at the School Of Psychology UCD.