"Organ transplantation always results in a crossing of paths: there is a life that ends and another that regains vital energy: hours of anguish and despair on the one hand, of apprehension and joy on the other. A cruel but inevitable crossing."
These are the words of Dr. Paolo Montalto, a gastroenterologist who graduated from the University of Florence's Medical School after studying at the Hepatobiliary Unit of the Free Hospital in London. His dual-language book, Crossing Paths, in Italian and English, has short chapters that are evocative glimpses into his world, each one giving the reader the narrative of his medical education and early life. It's an inventive, often inspiring, prose patchwork of different voices, which includes his own musings about hospital life and becoming a doctor, asides about his personal life, as well as poems from patients and even a letter to his mentors who guided him to his specialization. We are brought into his world with generosity and dedication.
While some of the English translation is at times rudimentary, the doctor's curiosity and attention to the many worlds he inhabits comes alive in each chapter. (A friend who speaks Italian read excerpts and found Dr. Montalto's writing intelligent and direct.) We get a collage of his life, both personal and professional, that feels like a series of honest glimpses, rather than a charted progress report that builds to a foregone conclusion.
One of the generous aspects of this engaging book are the chapters where Dr. Montalto departs from his own story to let his transplant patients tell theirs in their own voices, uncensored and unedited. Many of these patients recount stories that have a compelling simplicity, such as "Domenico," who is one of the narratives in the chapters entitled, "A patient's words." Domenico recounts the night when he gets the call around midnight to come to the London hospital for his transplant:
It was the 10th of August 1993 in London, the night of San Lorenzo. My daughter and her husband had arrived at my place two days earlier: We were all in the same house—the whole family reunited—when around midnight we received the call.
It had been an incredible and unforgettable surprise.
We got ready and we went to the hospital on foot.
It had been a very peculiar night. I always recall it—when talking to friends and family—as the "night of Bethlehem."
The thing that upset me the most—while I was walking to the hospital—was being aware of the fact that a person had died. This is the worst aspect of getting a transplant. I quite often think that a dead person's liver is still working inside my belly.
The operation was pretty long, but I can say that I have been really lucky....
The donor was 35. I have never wanted to know anything more. I often think about him. I pray a lot and lots of my thoughts are for this young many who isn't here anymore.
The honesty of this emotional missive is appreciated and welcome.
There is often a point in a memoir where one questions one's curiosity about peering into another person's life—that voyeuristic urge that sometimes feels shameless when a memoir delves into personal trauma and the often painful circumstances and emotional repercussions that follow. There is deep meaning in that kind of memoir, one that give us insight into worlds and ways of thinking we may never access or experience.
In Crossing Paths we find another kind of memoir that is also deeply meaningful to read: a recounting of narratives that celebrate and sometimes mourn the consequences of organ transplants and the doctors and patients involved in these lifesaving practices. Crossing Paths lets us witness clinicians who include the voices of others in their stories, a close-up look at the practice of narrative medicine at work.—Donna Bulseco
DONNA BULSECO, MA, MS, is a graduate of the Narrative Medicineprogram at Columbia University. After getting her BA at UCLA in creative writing and American poetry, the L.A. native studied English literature at Brown University for a Master's degree, then moved to New York City. She has been an editor and journalist for the past 25 years at publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Women's Wear Daily, W, Self, and InStyle, and has written articles for Health, More and the New York Times. She is Managing Editor of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.