This book, Anatomy of a Kidnapping, is well-named as an examination (anatomy) by the victim of a kidnapping, Dr. Steven Berk, Provost of Texas Tech Medical School. It is not formulaic fiction of mystery and crime. It is real.
A quiet Sunday in early March, “the only sounds a chorus of barking dogs, the cackle of blackbirds, the tinkle of wind chimes” is when a disturbed, wild-eyed man enters through the open garage with a shotgun. He is running from the law and needs money for further escape. Suddenly, as Dr. Berk turns in his chair from his computer in his small home office, the barrel of the shotgun is placed at his head.
The reader quickly comes to appreciate the unusual writing style and organizational format as the doctor’s mind slips to past periods of his life as he faces the emotional trauma of sure destruction. He has treated many who have been shot, even with shotguns, and he has often seen the devastation that guns reap. He now comes to know and feel what only victims of violent acts know and feel.
As a trained professional, he struggles to recapture “aequanimitas,” the ability to remain calm and rational under great stress, as taught by Sir William Osler around the turn of the century, and often taught to medical students. In fact, he had taught the techniques when he was a professor of medicine at East Tennessee State University. Now, it was a test against the personal stress of fear for the safety of his family, first, and staying alive, second.
You get to know Berk for the doctor, the feeling humanist, that he is as events unfold in the process of this kidnapping, and the mental engagement with this deranged criminal. The doctor thinks back to his fourth year in medical school when he decided to travel from Boston to the Keams Canyon Indian Hospital on the Hopi Indian Reservation in Navajo County, Arizona. While treating varied diseases, he performed every medical role in the understaffed hospital — radiologist, obstetrician, pharmacist, neurologist, etc.
He came to appreciate cultural differences when the tribal council took a co-worker, also a medical student, to task for placing an endotracheal tube down the deceased man’s throat. This practice was a common way for medical students to practice the procedure, and students thought nothing of it. But for the Hopi and Navajo, the practice was an abhorrence, as their beliefs about the afterlife required honoring the body of the dead in specific ways.
From Keams, he returned to Boston City Hospital, the inner-city of Boston, to do his residency. His memory fleets to delightful stories of patients he came to know while he was there. But you truly come to know this man as he reflects on a patient he grew close to. He explains his feelings as his doctor:
“Mr. Hudson was the first patient I developed a close relationship with to die under my care. During the two years he spent as my patient, he must have noticed how frequently I searched my white coat pockets in vain for a pen to make progress notes. On the day before he died, he presented me with a gift. I was standing by his bed when he stretched out his hand and said simply, ‘I want you to have this pen, from me.’ ”
It was a simple, green plastic pen. To this day, it occupies a special place on Dr. Berk’s desk, and he often thinks of Mr. Hudson.
But at another time in the long trauma while the kidnapper decides what he is going to do with the doctor, Dr. Berk reflects:
“As a physician, I have proudly played a role in memorable medical victories; I have been a part of inspiring recoveries, joyful births, and miraculous cures. It is a privilege of my profession to play an active role in these types of moments, to fight and defeat suffering, disability, and disease. However, there are times when a physician is just another powerless witness to the forces of life and death.”
This book is a memoir but creatively placed within the happening of a terrible criminal experience. We should all read this book. It is at once an entertaining read and an insight into doctors’ lives, what they feel and what goes on in their minds as they examine or operate on us. In the midst of fear, the theme is empathy … empathy for life, the feeling for each patient through all the years, the knowledge that this kidnapping may end all that; yet, even in the face of it, empathy for the suffering anxiety and fear of the criminal, as well. Sadly, it also gives clear expression to what it feels like to be the brunt of violent crime.
Thank you, Dr. Berk, for telling your story. Anatomy of a Kidnapping can be purchased through Amazon, The Texas Tech Press, and fine book retailers.