Review: Vital Signs: Heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious stories of a junior doctor's first year

Reviewed by Mollie Chater

Author: Izzy Lomax-Sawyers. Reviewer: Mollie Chater.In Vital Signs, Izzy Lomax-Sawyers provides an insight into what it's like to be a first-year junior doctor - the ups and downs, the drama, and how terrifying it is to finally be making decisions.September 2022 release

Get ready to chug your coffee, answer your phone and juggle the balance of life and death. It's time to peek inside the lives of a doctor and medical staff as they learn, fail, learn and do it all again in the wards of a hospital.

With hospital heroes, saviours in scrubs and an abundance of coffee, Vital Signs is medic/author Izzy Lomax-Sawyer’s journey into her first year as a junior doctor at Middlemore Hospital. We join Lomax-Sawyer through orthopaedics and psychiatry as she navigates lunch breaks and learns how hospital life is for those who work day in and day out to ensure the rest of us get the medical treatment we need.

From day one, she is thrust into a world of complications, tears and heartbreak but finds laughter, fun and love in the chapters of her story, too. We travel with Lomax-Sawyer as she grows from a shy student working to prove herself to a junior doctor making the tough decisions which come with the responsibility.

Vital Signs has a documentary meets medical tv show feel and reads as an encyclopaedia of medical terms. We get an insight into the amount of knowledge medical staff consume and provide on a daily - if not hourly - basis. Medical jargon, abbreviations and names for medicines that will have you tongue-tied, Lomax-Sawyers teaches us along the way and immerses readers fully into the world of medicine.

She learns and grows into her new responsibilities working through the ups and downs of her first year at the hospital. She learns how to observe patients to figure out the best way to treat them in psychiatry; in orthopaedics she blossoms into her role as a house officer and we’re awestruck at how orthopaedic surgeons “give patients quantity and quality of life.”

Whether it's a broken hip or a blood test, Lomax-Sawyer is ready to join the many others who get their hands dirty as they help. She indeed gets her hands dirty – and then makes sure they are as clean as possible – it’s a hospital after all.

Life is addressed in the pages of the chapters. How Covid effected the hospitals both inside and out, how illness can affect and change people. Sometimes when you walk through the doors of a hospital you can come out a different person. Lomax-Sawyers addresses problems that people can relate to like being a “supermum” and how the miracle of your kids' lives can take a toll on the body or how breaking a bone can put your life on pause.

My favourite part of the memoir is the realness it provides, a sense of humanity within heartbreak and the uncertainty of everyday. The book feels almost human, dealing with health problems, physical and mental, without sugar-coating or painting them as taboo. It speaks from the heart and shows a view of humans that makes you appreciate the doctors who help us.

Death is humbling, death is hard and death is heart-breaking, yet death is normal. Lomax-Sawyer writes death as it is, and it makes you want to celebrate and live the life we have now. Vital Signs puts into perspective that we only have one life and how we use it is up to us.

Lomax-Sawyer started as a part-time student, not knowing where she wanted to go or who she wanted to be. Pursuing and gaining a linguistics degree from Wellington’s Victoria University, working in politics and environmentalism, Lomax-Sawyers already wanted to make a difference. With the world as her oyster and an urge to do more with her life, she gained her MBChB from the University of Otago from where she moved to Auckland and got her first placement and job as a first-year doctor at Middlemore hospital.

From this Vital Signs was born, a medical journal for fans of House, Scrubs or Grey’s Anatomy to dive into and one where readers can learn without having to do those six years of medical school. Best of all, it lets us know that it's okay to not be okay; doctors are here to help.

Reviewed by Mollie Chater