David Nott, the frontline trauma surgeon reads from his memoir about working in some of the world's most dangerous conflicts.
For over twenty-five years, David Nott, has taken time off from his job as a vascular surgeon with the NHS to volunteer in war zones and areas impacted by natural disasters. Together with his compassion and a desire to help others, his skills on the operating table have saved countless lives, and he now trains others in the techniques he has developed on the frontline. David Nott reads his remarkable story, telling us about what motivates him and his experiences of war.
Nott emerges as a likeable character not because this is an account of heroic, lifesaving deeds – he could easily have appeared arrogant and self-serving – but because so many of the stories focus on his mistakes or limitations. A description of controlling catastrophic bleeding in a Syrian bomb victim and the difficulty of removing fragments of debris becomes a story about how to dispose of the possibly live detonator that he unexpectedly retrieves from the wound. This is followed by an account of a detonator falling out of another patient’s pocket mid-surgery. Nott chastises himself for not checking the pockets before operating. Later in the book he describes the long, furious row he had with an orthopaedic surgeon at Basra airbase about whether or not to amputate an arm as an injured British soldier patient lay bleeding. Nott not only loses the argument but concedes that he was wrong and that the long-term outcome of the amputation he had so vigorously opposed was far better for the patient – Jon-Allan Butterworth, who went on to win four Paralympic medals.
Ultimately, this is a book about two doctors. One was a “very pleasant and respectful” ophthalmologist whom Nott met in London many years ago, long before Bashar al-Assad became one of the most barbaric monsters of our age. The other is this intense vascular specialist of immense courage who discovered his life’s meaning carrying out surgery on the front line of Syria’s hell.
War Doctor is an intense read and at times a dense read. Some might criticise Nott as he attempts to provide the reader with a detailed geopolitical backdrop to the various regions he volunteers in. However, he moves from the “big picture” of the geopolitical backdrop to quickly transport the reader to the human consequences of such conflict. For example, in describing a particular scene in Taliban-held Kabul, the human consequences of geopolitical instability become all too clear: “I watched from a distance as people queued to have their hands or feet amputated with a single sweep of a machete. Many of these poor amputees made their way to the outpatients department at the hospital with their hand or foot in a plastic bag and then asked me to sew it back on.”
This is, at times, an overwhelming book – in places it reads like a litany of man’s cruelty to men, women and children. Nott is often drenched in blood and often terrified. It is not for the squeamish. As a surgeon myself, I can only look on what he has achieved with complete awe, overwhelmed by his heroism and compassion as much as by the world’s cruelty. It is a book that also gives us some insight into the psycho-pathology of sainthood, and yet just what the inner demons were that so drove him, he does not say. Perhaps he himself does not know. But the world is a much, much better place to have people such as David Nott in it.
...this book is a triumph: a love letter to surgery, and to helping others in extremis. Reading it is much like being taken apart and put back together again in a better way. It reveals a fascinating man whose life is a lesson for everyone in what good you can do with privilege. I spent the entire time reading this in awe of all surgeons – and nurses – working in conflict zones, and of those doctors and nurses running towards danger, both in the UK and abroad. I also spent the entire time wishing that David Nott would become our prime minister
War Doctor is one of the most brutally vivid evocations of modern warfare that you will read. As a practitioner of emergency or “low-resource” surgery, David Nott has been trying to repair the damage done to human beings by high velocity bullets, barrel bombs, cluster bombs and chlorine gas for more than 25 years. One of the great strengths of this superb, unforgettable, simply written and painfully clear memoir is the virtual absence of politics — although he does paint an extremely ugly picture of Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, as well as its bare-faced mendacity.
Gripping new memoir shares the extraordinary story of the doctor who risked his life to help others during the Syrian civil war... You can feel Nott’s frustration and anger at the speed with which the Syrian civil war escalated.
Where most people strive to avoid trouble, he actively goes in search of it... His stories of courage and compassion in the face of seemingly certain death are breathtaking... While this is far from a straightforward memoir – his childhood plus his years of medical training speed by in a single chapter – we nonetheless get a vivid sense of his energy, his determination and his desperate, howling rage at the cruelty that humans wreak on one another... If a film about his life isn’t already in development, someone’s missing a trick.
"I have travelled the world in search of trouble. It is a kind of addiction, a pull I find hard to resist." Anyone who read my profile of trauma surgeon David Nott in last week's magazine can be in little doubt why this memoir is my Book of the Month. For the past 25 years, Nott has been taking unpaid leave from his day job in the NHS to work in the world's war and disaster zones—and latterly training others to do so through the David Nott Foundation.