On Call: Stories from my life as a surgeon, a daughter, and a mother

Ineke Meredith, HarperCollins, $39.99

Written by      

By page two of her memoir, surgeon Ineke Meredith is standing in a small-town New Zealand emergency department assessing two “mangled 15-year-old bodies”. The boys had stolen a car, there’d been a police chase. By page five, they’re both dead, and Meredith is in the shower, contemplating the term “battle fatigue”. But then:

“General surgery has… drama, agitation, mystery, and the ability to save a life,” she writes. “It was a beautiful mélange of people, pathology, humour, madness, recovery, and loss.”

She writes about cases with clinical frankness. A lonely man pretends to swallow fish hooks—dozens of them—so he can be admitted to hospital. A murderer presents with a gunshot wound and has to have his leg amputated (she can’t name him, but this is 2007, when Graeme Burton went on a rampage through the Wainuiomata hills.) There is cancer. And then there are her own wounds.

Meredith was raised in Samoa by a loving mother and an abusive father. She longs to leave. But after she does, both her parents become ill. The fallout for Meredith is grief, loss, guilt, and frustration at inequities in healthcare for Pacific people.

A single mother, she sits a crucial exam for medical school only a few days after giving birth to her son. Throughout the book she bemoans her absences from his life. Still, she often chooses work over home. “Sometimes I think he grew up alone,” she writes. She faces sexism and misogyny from patients and colleagues alike, and also the trauma and exhaustion of battling an under-resourced health system.

When she finally chooses a different path, the relief for the reader is immense.