Book review: Final exam: A surgeon’s reflections on mortality

Book cover for the Final Exam book

By Pauline Chen, MD. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-307-26353-7. Hardcover, 268 pages. $29.95.

“I see dead people” is not only a famous Hollywood line, but a reality for most physicians. We see and touch the dead and have their dying touch us. Dr Chen, an American surgeon, explores this issue in her book Final Exam. 

Subtitled “A surgeon’s reflections on mortality,” the book begins in anatomy class when first faced with  a cadaver, continues through internships and residencies, running codes and pronouncing death, and settles in to life as a clinician tending to dying patients. 

Dr Chen honestly, and at times poignantly, relates her own  journey through these life stages. She recounts her own struggle in accepting that patients die and laments the sparse and inadequate training she received on this issue in medical school. She delicately relates the life and death stories of patients she has met during her career while outlining the difficulty her fellow students and colleagues have in providing care for these patients. 

Maturing as a person and doctor, she begins to see this issue differently and realizes that her skill as a transplant surgeon needs to be humanized by compassion and an ability to support the dying. Overall, a thought-provoking and interesting read.


David R. Richardson, MD. Book review: Final exam: A surgeon’s reflections on mortality. BCMJ, Vol. 50, No. 6, July, August, 2008, Page(s) 332 - News.

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