In the world of medicine, where achievement and altruism often intertwine, I Can’t Save You: A Memoir by Dr. Anthony Chin-Quee is a poignant reminder of the complex human experience that exists beyond the white coats and stethoscopes. With degrees from prestigious institutions like Harvard University and Emory University School of Medicine, the author’s accomplishments might lead us to believe that his journey is one of unwavering success, but his book says otherwise.
His life story, told through a deeply personal and introspective account, paints a different picture—one of struggle, vulnerability, and a relentless pursuit of self-discovery. Yet occasionally, the I Can’t Save You book falls into a pit of self-loathing and erratic prose, with some uncomfortable events raised that may make readers feel unsympathetic towards the writer.
As we delve into the narrative of Dr. Chin-Quee’s life, we are still confronted with the raw emotions and intricate layers that shape his identity. Through his writing, we witness the transformation of a brilliant medical mind into a multifaceted human being, grappling with the burdens of self-doubt, perfectionism, and hidden wounds. His journey serves as a mirror reflecting the challenges faced by many in the medical field and society at large, as they navigate the complexities of their own identities and seek to reconcile their personal struggles with their professional aspirations.
Who is Anthony Chin-Quee?
Anthony Chin-Quee, M.D., is a board-certified otolaryngologist, award-winning storyteller, and writer. He has degrees from Harvard University and Emory University School of Medicine. He was a story editor on the Fox medical drama series The Resident and a medical adviser for the ABC medical drama series Grey's Anatomy. Chin-Quee was born in New York City to Chinese-Jamaican immigrants. He grew up in Queens and attended Stuyvesant High School. He then went on to Harvard University, where he majored in biology. After graduating from Harvard, he attended Emory University School of Medicine. He completed his residency in otolaryngology at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan. After his residency, Chin-Quee worked as an otolaryngologist in Lancaster, California. He then moved to Los Angeles to work as a story editor on The Resident. He has also written for other television shows, including Grey's Anatomy and The Good Doctor. In addition to his work in television, he has told his stories at The Moth, a non-profit organisation that presents true stories told live. He has also been featured on NPR's This American Life.
What is the summary of the memoir I Can’t Save You?
I Can’t Save You: A Memoir is a raw and honest book about the challenges of being a Black physician in the United States. Chin-Quee writes candidly about his experiences with racism, sexism, and imposter syndrome, and how he overcame these challenges to become a successful doctor.
“A-Side – Success” chronicles Chin-Quee’s journey from his childhood in Queens, New York, to his medical school years at Harvard University. The author writes about the racism he faced in medical school, and how he struggled with imposter syndrome. He also writes about the importance of storytelling in his life, and how it helped him to cope with the challenges he faced.
While “B-Side – The Fall,” is about Chin-Quee’s residency in otolaryngology at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan. The author writes about the long hours and demanding work of residency, and how he learned to balance his personal life with his career. He also writes about the importance of mentorship, and how he found mentors who helped him to succeed.
Finally, the third part is about Chin-Quee’s career as a doctor. He writes about the challenges of being a Black doctor in a predominantly white medical field, and how he learned to navigate the racism and microaggressions he faced. He also writes about his relationships with his family and friends, and how he found his place in the world.
Central to Dr. Chin-Quee’s narrative is the theme of inherited pain and identity. He articulates the intergenerational transmission of trauma, particularly within immigrant families, where success is often the result of sacrifices and a desire to escape past hardships. Dr. Chin-Quee’s candid exploration of his relationship with his father exposes the multifaceted nature of generational trauma, uncovering the hidden emotions, unspoken expectations, and lingering pain that shape his understanding of self. He associates his insecurities with his father who “lived inside me”.
And his pain is key to his becoming a doctor in the first place as he “was drawn to medicine because of its fundamental dichotomy—altruistic and masochistic in equal measure,” thus using it as a form of punishment. Through his struggles with depression, self-hatred, and a desire to escape his father’s mistakes, he highlights the gravity of the battle between acceptance and rebellion, all while dissecting his connection to his West Indian heritage.
Mental health in the medical field
He further unravels the complexity of mental health within the medical profession itself. Dr. Chin-Quee’s brutally honest portrayal of his battles with depression challenges the façade of invulnerability often associated with healthcare providers. He writes that despite the fact that your job carves out new fears and extracts new terrors by the minute, “your constant state of posttraumatic stress doesn’t fucking matter” in the industry. As a result, much of the attitude towards health professionals is to “put on your big-kid pants, exchange your own humanity for someone else’s, compartmentalize your unruly emotions”, even at the expense of the people themselves. By renouncing compassion, the system may be inadvertently pushing the people who are supposed to protect us in to precarious situations’.
Therefore Dr. Chin-Quee’s courage in sharing his mental health journey illuminates the dire importance of recognising the human behind the white coat, acknowledging the prevalence of mental health struggles, and advocating for a more compassionate and supportive environment within the medical community.
Remembering our humanity
Amid the challenges and introspection, Dr. Chin-Quee’s story is one of resilience, growth, and the redemptive power of self-discovery. For the writer, much of the time he felt he would never be able to “defeat depression, just as he [my father] never did.” However, it took him time to understand his medical condition, defined by a specific constellation of symptoms that can be treated with certain medications and therapies. Given a particular circumstance, anyone can plunge into a major depressive episode.
His willingness to embrace his vulnerabilities, confront his past, and strive for healing is a testament to the unyielding human spirit. His transformation from a perfection-seeking achiever into a self-aware, compassionate individual resonates with readers who have confronted their own demons and yearned for authenticity in a world that often demands conformity.
The author not only challenges conventional narratives of success but also invites us to recognise the value of personal growth, embracing one’s authentic self, and confronting the painful truths that lie beneath the surface. Dr. Chin-Quee’s journey serves as a powerful reminder that while the medical profession is built upon the foundation of healing others, healing oneself is equally important. His story encourages us all to engage in the continuous journey of self-discovery, understanding, and self-acceptance, no matter how complex or daunting the path may seem.
Downplaying the unreasonable
While the writer lays bare his misgivings and his misdeeds, at times, the prose borders on chaotic, thus detracting from the seriousness of the subject. Not to mention, the trivialising of what appears to be misogyny and a very dubious encounter where he has to tell himself “I couldn’t be a predator”.
He blames his behaviour of sleeping with a drunk vulnerable woman, who was shocked that it had happened, on his “fracturing” brain. This description of being “broken” is mentioned in various ways frequently throughout the book. And it’s true that there is a sense of splintering when it comes to depression. Your sense of self is split from your body, and disassociative tendencies are common. But it is unusual to use this example to shine a light on the mental health of people of colour, where we don’t usually garner any empathy from the medical world. Perhaps Dr Chin-Quee believes by showcasing the dark and the light, we have a more realistic view of what depression can force people to do. But it does leave a sour taste in your mouth reading his blasé attitude towards a potentially disturbing situation.
There’s no doubt that Dr Chin-Quee has been through turmoil, as revealed through his disjointed thoughts, but at times the writing feels like it needed some re-ordering by a hawkish editor to make it more legible to the reader. The diarising of the book meant the structure is at times muddled and frustrating to read. Some aspects, such as the subconscious thoughts and poetry, appeared to be incoherent and spasmodic.
Key takeaways of I Can’t Save You book:
In conclusion, I Can’t Save You is a powerful and important book that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. Chin-Quee’s story is a reminder that it is possible to overcome the challenges of racism and to achieve your dreams. However, the doctor does show how it can come at a cost to your mental health, because of systemic issues within the medical field, which is geared towards testing people to their limits.
Not to mention, there were several loaded statements that were unclarified and thus leaving readers calling into question the author’s reported misogyny. It is easy to say depression is a straightforward journey that can be snapped out of, but the truth is we can be the hero and the villain in our own lives especially when we have no control over it.