Nursing Book Club

Just Here Trying to Save a Few Lives

Tales of life and death from the ER

By Pamela Grim, MD; Warner Books, 2002
to Save

Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

The title may seem lighthearted, but Pamela Grim, author of Just Here Trying to Save a Few Lives: Tales of Life and Death from the ER, leaves you with no doubt concerning her personal commitment to rescue medicine. Her stories are thoughtful and genuine, without a trace of the sarcasm that has made emergency medicine popular as pure entertainment.

After spending 10 years practicing big city ED medicine, Dr. Grim heads to Nigeria during a meningitis outbreak with the aid group Doctors Without Borders. There she tries to gain perspective on her career. With few supplies and conditions unimaginable to any physician from the developed world, she wades in to try and make a difference. Overwhelmed by the grief all around her, she begins to reminisce about the chain of events that landed her there, sitting under the stars drinking warm soda and treating patients housed in tents dying from diseases she’d barely even heard of.

The ER stories pour forth and with them come her thoughts on the medical issues we all face — like when is a full code necessary or when are you really ready to give bad news? The nurses in her vignettes are important partners in care, not just assistants.

Through her stories we learn that physicians don’t always have all the answers. Dr. Grim shares the perspective popular in recent medical writing that readers are anxious to know how doctors grow. We want our doctors to be human, and that means that they necessarily face a steep learning curve. We want to see know how they learn, but of course we want them to practice on someone else, not on us. Thus when Grim delivers a baby with an APGAR score of only 2, we’re with her all the way as she frantically tries to tease out an answer to the baby’s respiratory distress. We share the "a-ha!" moment with her when she figures it out and saves another life.

Save Lives She Does!

But she also describes in almost confessional detail the lives lost. She helps us realize that physicians really do lose sleep over the cases that go badly — wrong diagnosis made by someone else, transport team too slow, trauma patients that never make it through that first golden hour, patients lost that are actually people we care about.

Dr. Grim has other lessons to teach. Through her we learn to decipher the Latin script of prescriptions and begin to understand the emotional cost to doctors, including why they may become addicted to the medication all around them. We find out exactly what a coroner does, who determines the cause of death and why it even matters.

If you’ve ever wondered what it must be like to work in a busy emergency room, reading Dr. Grim’s stories will give you some perspective. You’ll see what it’s like to work at a frantic pace and deal with both grief and elation in the same shift, all the while being overtired and probably hungry, too. Your skills are constantly being challenged and you’ll see things that you couldn’t make up if you tried. Life in the ER is not for everyone, but it sure makes for great reading.   

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN has worked as a nurse since 1979 and has written extensively for various nursing publications, as well as The New York Times.

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