Review: There’s a cure for this: A memoir

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Author: Emma Espiner. Reviewer: Elizabeth Heritage.There’s a cure for this is Dr Emma Espiner’s pukapuka about entering the hothouse world of medical studies as an adult, beginning in 2015. May 2023 release

In my first year at uni in 1999, I lived in a college that was largely populated by Health Science students, i.e. manic stressballs. I told one of them once, proudly, that I’d got 84 per cent for an essay. He looked at me oddly. “And are you pleased with that?” he asked. Well I had been. “What were everyone else’s marks?” was his next question. I had no idea and never discussed my academic results with that crowd again.

There’s a cure for this is Dr Emma Espiner’s (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) pukapuka about entering the hothouse world of medical studies as an adult, beginning in 2015. The subtitle says it’s a memoir, but I feel this creates the wrong expectation. It also isn’t a manifesto or set of policy recommendations as the title might imply. Instead_,There’s a cure for this_ is a series of loosely linked essays, some of which have been published elsewhere.

Espiner tells stories from her childhood and early adult life but most of the pukapuka is focussed on her medical training and entering the workforce as a Māori doctor and working mother just as the pandemic hit. It’s much more of a light read than I expected, with a conversational tone and plenty of humour. Espiner is an engaging writer with some excellent one-liners: ‘The most significant thing I got out of Parliament was a husband.’ Later on she mentions her ‘dread of ever being accused of earnestness.’

She touches on a lot of big issues, especially racism and inequality in the health system but the format of 17 short, spaced-out chapters in what is quite a short book (less than 200 pages) means that a lot of important stuff is hurried through. I think she covered these issues better and in more depth in her excellent podcast, Getting Better: A Year in the Life of a Māori Medical Student, which won a media award in 2021.

Espiner writes: ‘My therapist works with a lot of doctors. She knows we are conditioned to be achievement-driven and understands how the perversity of the obstacle course of medical school and specialist training creates the desire to meet seemingly impossible goals. It’s the intoxication of winning.’ This sheds some interesting light on an earlier point that ‘[being a doctor] meant stepping into this world where everyone expects you to be excellent. It’s powerful, terrifying, motivating. It was the same with writing. Writing had been my most deeply cherished and protected dream – so protected that I never did anything about it. I didn’t dare try to become a writer until I was well on the way to becoming a doctor.’

This made me wonder whether, conditioned by her hyper-competitive field and fuelled by the life-threatening urgency of the pandemic, Espiner rushed out this book in order to win at writing. Slow down, I kept wanting to say. Slow down.

There’s a cure for this opens with a note: ‘Mary Karr [American poet] says you need distance to write properly, and I thought of the suffocating closeness of being a junior doctor, and how nothing makes sense unless you go right back to the beginning.’ It feels like Espiner, who graduated medical school in 2020 and is now in training to become a surgeon, doesn’t have that distance yet.  

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage