Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Historical Novel With Details Only A Doctor Can Provide

The Dash of Dr. Todd: The Odyssey of a Frontier Doctor
Author: Howard E. Adkins, M.D.
Published by: Xlibris, Boise, Idaho, 2009

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Okay, I must admit two things: I hardly ever read novels. Secondly, when I embarked on the pages of this book, I really believed it wasn’t a novel. In fact, I thought that the author had researched the lead character, his great-grandfather, in a very thorough historical manner and was providing us with the details of his life to the best of his knowledge. And yes, throughout the reading of this great work, I did not for a moment doubt the fact that everything that Howard E. Adkins wrote could indeed have come to pass, just as he described it. It was only when preparing to write this review did I notice the page that said, “Other Novels by Howard E. Adkins”. Wow, talk about a personal surprise as a reader.
This is the story of a “dash” – the little mark that is inserted between the date of one’s birth and the date of one’s death on a tombstone. It is the dash of Daniel Locke Todd, M.D.  It starts off in the eastern part of the United States in 1825 and takes us excitedly around Cape Horn and on to Oregon, finally saying good-bye in Idaho City, Idaho in 1868. There the life, and the dash, of Dr. Todd ended.  But what a life and a dash it was.
Author Adkins is a pro at presenting us with a man’s thoughts, goals, struggles. He is even more of a master at helping us understand the limitations of our knowledge at any given time, especially when it comes to miracles of medical science. But I was amazed at how skillfully he described (writing for both medical and non-medically trained readers) just what could be done to help relieve suffering and pain, as well as how to ease one’s last days or hours of life, in the 1800’s, and in remote places at that.
I’ll let you discover all that for yourselves. What I want to share in this review is some of the hard questions of life that Adkins exposes us to through Dr. Todd. In fact, one of the main themes of the work is Todd’s life-long search for his own purpose.  Early we read his thoughts on possibly dying before he even had a chance to practice medicine, as the author shares them, “. . . if there is a God in the Heavens, surely he would not allow such vast tracts of knowledge to be crammed into my brain and then waste it all by letting that mind die and rot unused.”
And then there’s the truth that comes from one of his medical instructors after being defeated in the delivery of a baby whose position is a “transverse lie” (i.e. according to Wikipedia, the baby has his head to one of his mother's sides and the bottom across her abdomen at her other side. This is normal before 26 weeks, but by 29-30 weeks we expect babies to be head down, or at least breech). The doctor remarks, “There is a razor’s edge between a very normal birth and a disaster such as this. We, as doctors, are supposed to make a difference, make more of them normal, but we are not always successful. Your goal as a doctor, Todd, must be to do a better job than I have just done here.” Accepting that very fact is sometimes just as hard on doctors as it is on the patients and their families.
A good portion of the book is also about being lost at sea – not just in terms of bearings. And the author has taken great care to introduce us to the life of whalers and their work during that period. It’s a remarkable feat he has accomplished. Adkins’ account of the whaling industry’s history alone is well worth the time spent in reading this book.
At one point, as Dr. Todd deals with a suicidal patient’s intervention, he begins to describe the human mind to him and asks, “Does anybody you know have the knowledge and skill to build any sort of machine that complicated? What do you think, Elias?” Todd was really asking himself that very question.
The main character was also prone to thoughts of crime especially of people he considered to be vile and abusive towards others, even to the extent of plotting to take their lives for the honor of their victims.  In fact, when one of his intended targets dies by other means, and is given the briefest of funerals, Todd reflects on the deceased person’s just desserts, thinking his “demise was welcomed by many, accepted by some and mourned by nobody.” Is this what life is meant to be for some?
Watching over a dying patient, Todd reflects on the necessity that “throughout life (one) simply must breathe in and breathe out, one breath at a time, and wait to see what the next minute holds. . .. Just have faith and patience – faith and patience.” But he himself has neither.
The author tackles abortion in one long paragraph in a very unique way – from the perspective of a conscientious doctor struggling with the matter of predestination at the same time. Elsewhere we are treated to the anguish involved in a person’s inability to help another person when he/she believes that this is his/her very purpose in life.
As I had made these notes, I realized I had not even reached halfway through the story. From there on, I could not even stop long enough to make notes for later use.  Adkins had me entangled in the plot of Dr. Todd’s ‘dash’.  There was love, loss, failure, success, hardship, epidemics, hatred, poverty, hunger, sickness, fraud, and so much more. There was even murder before the dash reached its final resting place.
I must stop now because my wife wants the book and she’s waited long enough. And then her friend wants it. Highly recommended – even for those that don’t read novels.
·      Ken B. Godevenos, President, Accord Resolutions Services Inc., Toronto, Ontario, October 23, 2016.

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