The Ministry of Bodies describes the final months of my long career as a hospital doctor. I left in the first week of February 2020, just before the pandemic. Although I wrote it during lockdown, this is not a Covid-19 book.
The ‘Ministry’ is a large Irish teaching hospital where I trained in the mid-1980s and returned to in 2001 after working for many years in the UK.
This is my third and most personal book. The first two – The Way We Die Now (2016) and Can Medicine be Cured? (2019) – were polemical. The Ministry of Bodies is a departure for me: episodic and digressive, part diary, part memoir, it puts a human face to the themes I have written about in my other books.
To the episodicist, absurdity is the defining characteristic of human life; nowhere is this more evident than in a hospital. Daily life in the Ministry was a permanent crisis: an endless round of meaningless managerial initiatives and targets, professional squabbling, and ‘turfing’ of patients. This sclerotic system failed the people it was supposed to serve.
The book deals with many themes, including burnout and error. To practise medicine is to have a permanent feeling that you’ve forgotten something. Although the setting is healthcare, it’s about ageing, regret and memory.
Writing about ‘real’ patients is difficult: you must maintain the confidentiality of the individual, but you must be truthful in the general. This was my greatest challenge when writing the book. I hope I have succeeded.
The worst thing about being a doctor is other doctors. Those I liked and admired are presented largely unchanged; the rest (only a few) are amalgams of several scarcely credible monsters.
But it’s a happy book too: a tragicomic reflection on life, death, Diogenes the Cynic, Pulp Fiction’s Mr Wolfe, the seven deadly sins of medicine, the uselessness of good intentions and Andrea Pirlo’s rich chestnut hair.
Seamus O’Mahony is a doctor and author. His first book The Way We Die Now won the British Medical Association’s Council Chair’s Choice Book Award in 2017. His second book Can Medicine Be Cured? was published in 2019. His new book, The Ministry of Bodies is published by Head of Zeus. He is visiting professor at the Centre for the Humanities and Health at King’s College London. He is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books and the Medical Independent, and has written also for The Irish Times, the Observer and the Saturday Evening Post.