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A “Tern’s” Testimony: A Book Review of ‘The House of God’

by Rena Lenchitz (’23)

Seldom do we realize that our vision of medicine and doctors is highly romanticized. Whether it’s drawing upon familiar images from television (think Grey’s Anatomy), or the mere lack of transparency among undergrad students and medical students and residents, there is a haze that surrounds what it’s like to embark on a journey to practicing medicine. 

Luckily, we can turn to literature to provide some guidance. Author Samuel Shem, an American psychiatrist, does not shy away from any details in his witty and honest novel, The House of God. The narrative focuses on Roy Basch, an intern who once attended the “Best Medical School” (also known as BMS, a pseudonym for Harvard Medical School), who navigates his rounds as an intern at the book’s namesake hospital. The details of his shifts on call; his rapport with other “terns,” nurses, and doctors; and the ebb and flow of his mental, physical, and emotional well-being are all documented throughout the course of just one year. The dialogue is often stern, matter of fact, and most of all, extremely telling of the difficult and draining work conditions of young physicians.   

As I read through the novel, I found its discussion of life and death and all the matters in between quite remarkable. Readers are dragged along Roy’s journey of self-actualization in which he finds himself becoming selfish and short-sighted, all while working in a profession that is renowned for its selflessness. The narrative reminds us that doctors are fallible human beings just like anyone else; unfortunately, the interns never seek out help from the psychiatrist for fear of being perceived as weak or incapable. In fact, much of Shem’s work discusses how doctors prefer to do nothing for the betterment of themselves and their patients. Excessive testing and check-ins often aggravate the patients in this novel, a sight unseen to many pre-med eyes. 

Amidst the chaos of our narrator’s life, readers are introduced to mortality and death in a blunt and harrowing manner. I empathized with Roy as he felt burdened by the guilt of patients who died under his watch. In broader terms, the book details the death of Roy’s naivety towards medicine. Our narrator’s work is notorious for “destroying” its interns, much like a “disease” would. Shem masterfully writes that “the main source of illness in this world is the doctor’s own illness: his compulsion to try to cure and his fraudulent belief that he can.” 

A fascinating and absorbing read, The House of God is sure to garner intrigue for any and all readers. I won’t divulge all the engaging details of the work; instead, I encourage you instead to pick up a copy and embark on the journey yourself. However, I will say that you should take the time to read the Afterword. I found the author’s advice about learning empathy, seeking compassion and never shying away from being with other people, and asking for help brings readers comfort and ease after witnessing the tumultuous and tiring time documented by the doctors in the hospital.  

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