Francis brings in some useful science and medical history as befits an Edinburgh doctor; the city was, after all, the cradle of public health inventions that have saved far more lives than any surgical wizardry. He offers a few pointers to the history of pandemics from Hippocrates to Daniel Defoe and Laura Spinney’s influential study of 1918 Spanish flu, Pale Rider. That sets the context for his descriptions of his patients in a city surgery, on secondments in Orkney, and among the homeless. He offers vivid detail on how this pandemic has affected different communities – from islands dependent on helicopters for healthcare to the fragile marginalised of the inner city.
There is much in this record of coping with Covid-19 that is disturbing, some that is alarming. Overall however the effect is different, even inspiring. I can’t recommend it too strongly. You will learn a lot from it, and you will find much more that is encouraging.
He has used Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722 and recalling the epidemic of bubonic plague in 1665, as a kind of template, with a creepily apposite quotation heading each chapter. Intensive Care, although slightly overtaken by recent events, is a concise, fascinating time capsule of a book that will be useful reading for future historians.... His great theme is humanity, and the sheer frustration of not being able to treat people as humanely as he would like; without naming names, he describes individual patients vividly and with unfailing respect for their individuality. Intensive Care, which ends ominously at the start of the second wave, is well written, often entertaining and occasionally deeply moving; an unmissable account of a year we will all try too hard to forget.
Quoting emails and letters from NHS management and other officials, Francis weaves together primary source material that clearly demonstrates the sluggishness of the government’s response. “Not yet, not yet, was the refrain… But it felt wrong,” he writes. “We’d been like toddlers on the beach, fascinated by the waves edging ever closer up the sand, but who still squeal with shock when the water rolls over our toes. None of us could be persuaded to jump back until the disease was already on us.”