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A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside

A-Another Day in the Frontal Lobe"The brain is soft," writes Connecticut neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik. "Some of my colleagues compare it to toothpaste, but that’s not quite right." Rather, it’s more like soft tofu. In this inside look at the profession, Firlik demythologizes the field and posits the brain surgeon as part scientist, part clinician, and part mechanic. As she recounts her background and describes her transition from neurosurgery resident to full-fledged surgeon in a 95 percent-male-dominated field, she details her daily exploits, which range from removing a nail from a carpenter’s left frontal lobe to treating a boy with bacterial meningitis. In the end, despite her great accomplishments, Firlik strips away the brain surgeon’s superhero status and says, "I’m just the neurosurgeon here."
Random House. 288 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1400063205

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Firlik includes the set pieces of the genre—the bizarre cases, the life-and-death O.R. scenes, the hushed withdrawal of life support—but what makes them so powerful is that rather than focusing on the spectacle, she shows you that they are often just routine, inevitable results of decisions made long before she was involved." John A. Vaughn

Deseret Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a fair bet that she succeeded [in residency] partly because she is so engaging and personable. … It is close to amazing that a surgeon could make her life and her work interesting to a lay readership, but she does, and she does it with wit, with flair—and with sharp writing that never ascends to the out-of-reach level of medicine-speak." Dennis Lythgoe

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Even the most hardened CSI watcher may find it tough going when Firlik gets to the story of the man whose brain was infested with maggots. … But if you suppress your squeamishness, what you’ll find in the book is an engaging account of a young neurosurgeon’s life and training, a lucid explanation of the techniques involved in poking around in the brain, and a compassionate attitude toward the people who go under the knife (and drill and saw and so on)." Charles Matthews

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Dr. Firlik is not always sure which book she is writing, and readers keen to get to the next case study may fret as the author discusses, say, her philosophy about the afterlife or the artwork of Andy Goldsworthy, introduced because it deals with the way nature fragments over time, just as the brain does." William Grimes

Wisconsin State Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Perhaps because she deals with the mechanics of the brain, Firlik seems absolutely intrigued with that part of its function she can’t control: thought. … [She] also seems intrigued with the idea we might be able to train our brains toward happiness." William Wineke

Critical Summary

Katrina Firlik shatters the myth most of us hold of brain surgeons as superheroes: they’re merely masters of the trade. Critics agreed that her engaging, witty insight into the profession, her layperson’s explanation of complex medical terms and routine surgeries, and her compelling stories more than overshadowed the blood-and-gore factor. A few critics expressed disappointment that Firlik only touched on her challenges as a woman in the field, particularly as the first woman admitted to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s neurosurgery residency program. Others noted some self-indulgent tangents, though she amply covers her personal inspirations. Overall, Another Day provides a fascinating look into the oh-so-routine practices brain surgeons face daily.

Supplemental Reading

Hot Lights, Cold Steel Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon’s First Years | Michael J. Collins (2005): Collins chronicles his residency at the Mayo Clinic, where he was eventually named chief resident in orthopedic surgery. This is a compelling account of his own life (including having three children in three years—he now has 12) and the lives and hardships facing his patients.