Interview by Jackie Karneth
You are an emergency physician, medical researcher and former editor of Academic Medicine. How did you incorporate your medical expertise into Moonstone Hero?
Over the years, I have treated many patients with respiratory failure, gasping to breathe and facing possible death and I drew upon some of the conversations I have had with them to help me write the dialogue between the two main characters of the story. While the book is based upon actual events, my recollection of the dialogue that occurred as I faced the difficult decisions I made have faded with time, and I have used my 40 years of experience as an emergency physician caring for patients to fill in some of the gaps in reconstructing the dialogue and descriptions.
What does heroism mean to you both in the medical profession and beyond?
As health professionals, doctors, nurses, and others make decisions every day that expose themselves to dangers that others might consider heroic but we feel are part of the job. It takes something extraordinary like the COVID pandemic to make us realize how every day just walking through the hospital doors was heroic because we watched patients dying before our eyes of a disease we did not understand, that had no effective treatment and we could not adequately protect ourselves. And we might expose our loved ones to the disease when we returned home. And yet we still walked through those hospital doors. So to me heroism is the willingness to act to help others in spite of the dangers to ourselves, and I think that events can suddenly thrust people into the spotlight who never considered themselves to be heroic but who take those steps that make a difference and inspire others.
How does Moonstone Hero connect to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic?
The courageous actions of our health professionals was what inspired me to write “Moonstone Hero.” I watched as our residents in emergency medicine and critical care confronted this new and terrifying disease with little guidance from their faculty supervisors because they realized it was their responsibility and part of the identity they were forging as doctors. They helped to create a culture of heroism in which we raised the expectations for all of us to be heroic. Sadly there were political forces that prioritized the rights, and desires of individuals over the needs of the population and even threatened health professionals. I’m hoping that in the long run heroism wins out as our highest cultural value.
Why did you choose Mount Kilimanjaro as your setting for this book? Have you ever been on a mountaineering expedition like the one in Moonstone Hero?
I actually climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as a medical student and this story draws upon actual events that occurred during that climb. When I think of my career there have been many patients whose lives I’ve helped save, but I’ve never been so close to a person who was dying, whose life was literally in my hands as on the mountain. It’s an experience I’ve mostly kept to myself except for including it in stories I’ve told my children over the years. I’ve never had the desire to climb a mountain after that.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I hope people will realize that we all can be heroes if put into the right situation, and we need to create a culture in which heroic actions are encouraged and become the norm, and that we don’t imagine that we need a Superman to come along and save the day. All of us can be Supermen or Superwomen. That was what I observed during COVID among our health professionals and other essential workers. We need to share their stories. I am so proud of them.