BOOKLIGHT: "A Country Doctor's Journal"Review of the book, "A Country Doctor's Journal" by Dr. Roger A. MacDonald, a rural Northern Minnesota physician - his third book.
By: Ellen Baker, Living North Magazine
I loved Dr. Roger A. MacDonald’s first two books, “A Country Doctor’s Chronicle” and “A Country Doctor’s Casebook,” so I was happy to make the belated discovery recently that he had written a third book, “A Country Doctor’s Journal,” published in 2007. These are fabulous books that everyone should read!
Dr. MacDonald served as a family physician in rural northern Minnesota from 1948 to 1980, and all three of his books, collections of stories about his experiences, are treasures not only for their descriptions of life in this particular place and time, but also for the unique perspective that the compassionate and insightful Dr. MacDonald brings to them.
Like its predecessors, “A Country Doctor’s Journal” provides a compelling mix of tales. Some are of medical achievement in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds. Others give insight into the moral conundrums encountered by a doctor, such as the story of a woman who told Dr. MacDonald that, if she had a stroke, she didn’t want to be kept alive by feeding tubes “and that kind of thing.” When the worst happened, some years later, he told the woman’s family he intended to honor the pact, and the woman survived “without an ounce of nutrition for 27 days. My resolve was a battered husk by that time.”
There are heartbreaking accounts of cases where nothing could be done, like the frigid night of a terrible house fire when Dr. MacDonald coaxed his frozen Ford into starting, only to arrive at the scene to find two burned parents pleading with him to see to their 7-year-old daughter. “We got her out. Thank God she’s not burned.” – only to find that the little girl’s lungs were destroyed.
Also mixed in are some truly funny anecdotes, such as that of the Norwegian fisherman who, when someone said to him, “I understand you buried [your brother] Olaf last week,” replied, “Had to. Died.”
Dr. MacDonald doesn’t spare himself in telling such stories as when he was an intern helping to deliver a baby at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth, where the delivery room had a panoramic view of Lake Superior. “Mrs. Jones was perhaps half an hour away from delivery. The time was 5 a.m., the month June. The new day’s sun in all its chromatic glory peered across Lake Superior at us where we medics stood, gowned, gloved and waiting … For a moment forgetting Mrs. Jones, lying with her all presented to God and us, I stared out the window at nature’s canvas and said reverently, ‘I never tire of this view.’”
The order in which these diverse tales are presented is somewhat random, and that seems fitting, true to the way Dr. MacDonald would have experienced them.
My only complaint about “A Country Doctor’s Journal” is that some of the tales related in it are ones that Dr. MacDonald solicited from his friends, fellow Minnesota country doctors, and as a reader I found them to be somewhat dislocating, particularly because northern Minnesota figures so heavily in Dr. MacDonald’s tales, while some of the book’s other contributors practiced in southern Minnesota. I do think my sense of dislocation could have been helped had something more been done with typefaces and formatting to indicate when our narrator was someone other than Dr. MacDonald.
Dr. MacDonald’s first book, “A Country Doctor’s Chronicle,” is still my favorite of his three, so start there if you haven’t already read this wonderful series. But anyone who has read and enjoyed the first two will like this newest installment, too. Overall, Dr. MacDonald has much to tell us not only about being a doctor in his particular time and place but also about being a human being.
Ellen Baker, formerly of Superior, Wis., is the author of “Keeping the House: A Novel,” now available in paperback. She now lives in northeastern Minnesota, where she is at work on her second novel. Visit her Web site at www.ellenbakernovels.com.