“The unfortunate thing about medical training, the thing that nobody tells you, is that the exact things for which you are valued in your medical school application – altruism, patience, well-rounded interests with numerous extracurricular hobbies, an all-around compassion for humanity – are the exact things that are beaten out of you during the years it takes you to become a doctor.”

So writes Michelle Au in her honest, irreverent look at medicine and motherhood in This Won’t Hurt a Bit (And Other White Lies) (Grand Central; $24.99).

Dr. Au, now an anesthesiologist living in Atlanta with her two young sons and husband, also an MD, began medical school with a vague idea that it might be an interesting career path. Both her parents were MDs and had tried hard to dissuade her from following in their footsteps. So as a sort of act of defiance, she decided to enroll in medical school in what she calls “. . . the most halfhearted attempt at rebellion on record.”

The accounts of those early years of medical school are hilarious and heart-breaking. But what Dr. Au makes clear from the beginning of This Won’t Hurt a Bit is that this memoir is not just about how she navigated the medical world. It’s about the life she wanted beyond the four walls of the hospital.

Read an interview with Michelle Au at MomMD.com.

Relationships amid the learning

“Was there dating in medical school? Yes, of course there was, how could there not be?” As she takes us on her journey toward a medical degree, Dr. Au weaves in the progression of her relationship with a fellow med student – Joe – who eventually becomes her husband. And she candidly shares the ups and downs of dating through the most demanding academic stretch of her life.

Taking a month-long rotation at a community hospital in another state during her third year, she and Joe have timed it so they can share the experience. Though the “tenement” housing leaves much to be desired. For some it might sound romantic, but “. . . during those freezing flophouse nights, huddled together under the crushing weight of ten scratchy hospital blankets and contemplating whether it would be worth it to keep the oven on overnight just for the heat . . . romance is the furthest thing from our minds.”

Never one to portray herself as a superhero, Dr. Au writes openly about confronting personal fears and indecision. The chapters about her pediatrics residency show the self-doubt and second-guessing that come with making such a weighty decision. And for Dr. Au, it was the wrong one.

“I realize now in retrospect that I made a classic medical-student mistake when I chose to go into Peds. I confused my hobby with my career.”

But can you just switch residencies? Snap a finger, and like that, you’re on a new course. Dr. Au shows that it is done, and despite the self-flagellation and sense that she was somehow a “traitor,” she took the plunge and elected to switch to an anesthesia residency.

Drama over

So drama over, we think, and Dr. Au will march quietly into the sunset without making any more messy decisions. She gets accepted into a new program, lines up her start date for anesthesia training, and her future is set.

Not so with this tale. She discovers she is pregnant, and her due date is just three weeks after the start of her new residency. 

“Being a resident is hard enough. Having a baby is hard enough. How am I supposed to do both at the same time?”

The chapters on motherhood are humorous – juggling childcare and pumping breast milk in lonely bathroom stalls – and surprising as she discovers she’s becoming a “hippie mom,” the kind she scorned through her clinic years.

What will most interest medical students and residents that This Won’t Hurt a Bit reads like a first-person account of the making of a doctor. And Au does not offer a naïve retelling of these foggy, sleepless years. Her writing is based on her blog entries at The Underwear Drawer  (named for the place she kept her journal) and has an intimate, immediate feel. 

In sharing the experiences that made her an MD and a mother, not only does Dr. Au take the gloves off, but she removes the rose-colored glasses as well.