Fresh Meat: Trauma by Michael and Daniel Palmer

Trauma by Michael Palmer and Daniel Palmer is a medical thriller about a neurosurgical resident, who, after an awful mistake, retreats home, where her brother's PTSD offers an irresistible medical challenge (available May 12, 2015).

Who isn’t captured by the horror of a single error yanking a life off the rails, and not one's own, but someone else's? Most of our blunders mess up our own lives—sleeping through our big presentation, getting a facial peel at a pop-up salon, signing on for a weekend with GoT reenacters. Medical thrillers may demand patience for clinical details, a head for the jargon, or interest in fine points of the science. But few actions truly ruin others’ lives like the doctor who makes what anyone outside the profession might consider an easy error. Like Dr. Carrie Bryant does.

Carrie’s choice to jump right into triathlons was perhaps not the wisest, but she never did anything half measure. She enjoyed pushing her body to new limits. She’d also used the race to raise more than a thousand dollars for BCH: a tiny fraction of what was needed, but every bit helped.

BCH served the poor and uninsured. Carrie felt proud to be a part of that mission, but lack of funding was a constant frustration….

If the constant budget shortfalls had a silver lining, it could be summed up in a single word: experience. With each BCH rotation the hours would be long, the demands exhausting, but Carrie never groaned or complained. She was getting the best opportunity to hone her skills.

Fatigue-slammed neurosurgeon Carrie Bryant’s error costs a man the best of what’s left in his life. That’s what sets in motion Trauma by father-son duo Michael and Daniel Palmer. Based on a premise by the now-deceased Michael, his son Daniel writes the story of how a doctor claws her way back toward wholeness after such an incident. Her response to the trauma is immediate: she resigns her residency and retreats to her parents’ house, where she joins her volatile brother Adam, an army vet with PTSD, who has also gone to ground. It creates a powerful hook into a character-driven plot that elevates the tale above many medical thrillers.

The siblings’ situations stand in contrast, yet soon provide Carrie reason to take advantage of an unexpected job opportunity: working on what could be a ground-breaking neurosurgical procedure to help those with PTSD.          

The descriptions of how the doctor offering Carrie this chance explains what he hopes to accomplish involve pretty basic information, stuff one might read in any medical thriller or hear on a detailed news report. When the narrative turns to the surgeries themselves is when more unusual information unfolds: how surprisingly easy it seems to drill holes into a patient’s skull, the pain that builds in one’s back and arms during hours-long procedures, or how accurate calibrations need to work along with intuition when one places microscopic wires with success into the brain.

The list of symptoms Dr. Bryant’s mentor aims to remedy through his groundbreaking procedure includes those we all know from news reports of PTSD, such as nightmares, depression, anxiety, aggression, and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. While the goal is noble, the protocol requires a dangerous reach deep into each sufferer’s trauma. That’s where the book grabs again, filling the pages with images and emotions that are hard to let go.

Taking the reader deep behind the acronym, the trauma that generated one character’s PTSD is recounted with vividness, specificity, and personal details. Adam Bryant merely sketches the moments that still wound him:

“So we’re following these kids on some shitty nothing road … The whole time I’m looking for upturned dirt. You see, predeployment training teaches you that upturned dirt could mean an IED. But let me tell you, the dirt’s upturned everywhere you look. Everywhere. So any step could be it. Boom! Any single step…

“So we’re back moving, with just one guide now, a twelve-year-old kid, maybe fourteen. He’s skinny and dirty and waving frantically to us to hurry…

 “… and then the kid turns around and he just smiles at us. I’ll never forget that look on his face. It was pure joy. And then he reaches into his robe, takes out a pistol, and he fires…

“The kid knew he was going to die. He just wanted us to scamper. To be careless…

 “Sure enough I heard the boom, and then another, and somebody’s arm hit me in the face. There were limbs everywhere, man. Fucking flying everywhere. Bodies aren’t supposed to be blown apart like that …”

Adam’s trauma illustrates the depth of the jobs facing Dr. Bryant and her mentor. This provides urgency in a more genuine way than the average ticking clock. Indeed, one of the book’s strengths is how its action scenes, whether via a flashback, the operating room, or a present-day attack, are anchored in the characters’ emotional responses. While the action may not be as relentless as that in The DaVinci Code or as neatly calibrated as the average Jack Reacher encounter, the plights and fights that arise in Trauma will linger with the reader beyond the final page.

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Kate Lincoln writes crime fiction informed by her years in clinical medicine and as a homeopath and EMT, most of which is set in New Jersey horse country called the Somerset Hills.

See all of Kate Lincoln’s posts for Criminal Element.