Is Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole, by Allan Ropper and Brian Burrell, the next non-fiction book for you? Find out my thoughts, and whether I’d recommend it, here…
Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole is a non-fiction book, following the rounds and incredible patient stories experienced by top neurologist, Dr. Allan Ropper. With stunning reviews across the board, did it live up to these expectations?
I wouldn’t say I was one for non-fiction; I much prefer getting immersed in a story, and falling in love with characters that will never exist. That said, after seeing this book in the Amazon Kindle library, and reading the description, it sounded like something I wanted to give a go.
I would say it was the title that caught my eye, initially, but did this initial attraction pay off? To discover a little more about the book and its main themes, as well as my thoughts on the collection of stories, keep reading…
What is Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole About?
Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole follows the successes and failures of Dr. Allan Ropper, one of the worlds leading neurologists working in New York. Each chapter is a look into the life of a neurologist, and the sorts of challenges they face on a daily basis.
Brian Burrell aided Ropper in writing the story by following him around the ward and writing notes as he spoke to patients. Where Ropper was completely focused on the patient and their problem, Burrel was providing an overview of the entire situation. So, where we find detailed descriptions of what the weather outside the windows looked like, that’s usually Burrell talking, providing a broader view of what it’s like from two perspectives.
The book begins pretty mundane, introducing us to a few patients, and setting the scene. Every morning, Ropper and his team have to make their rounds of all the patients on their ward as quickly as possible. This is to ensure they can brief everyone on the ward that morning of the situations, and handover to the next person on shift.
Then, they assess the severity of each patient’s case to put forward a plan of action. Every new patient we come across is assessed by Ropper and his team, and we get a true insight into the speed with which these doctors have to make these snap judgements. Seeing tens of patients each morning, usually all with completely different afflictions, and deciding what to do with them whilst juggling any new cases that come in must be mind-boggling.
Although I’ve always respected doctors and what they do, I have a newfound respect for the work that neurologists do after reading this. Working long hours, coming into work at whatever times they’re needed, and sussing out peoples’ diseases based on certain signs is just phenomenal. It just goes to show the immense training, emotional resilience, and dedication this sort of job requires. Hats off, is all I can say.
Some Memorable Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole Themes
Most of the chapters in this non-fiction story take a look at a different character, based on a real person that came into the hospital at one point or another. Because of this structure, we dive into a number of different patient experiences, and see how Ropper and his team work to help these patients to survive… or not.
This gives us a real idea of the challenges faced in the neurological department, the long-term relationships formed with patients, and the time-sensitivity involved in it all. Some of the most memorable chapters and themes I can came across in the book included:
Lou Gehrig’s Disease
One of the most shocking chapters I read was about a patient with Lou Gherig’s disease, which slowly kills off the neurons controlling voluntary muscles. This eventually leaves the person unable to breathe on their own, so they remain on a ventilator for the rest of their lives. They are completely conscious, but trapped in their own bodies.
For someone with health anxiety, this was a troubling chapter or two to read. It demonstrated how randomly this can come on for anyone, and how debilitating it is. By providing a contrast of two different patients; one who survived and one who didn’t, we could really see the damage this could do, and how mentally strong you must be to take either path.
Michael J. Fox’s Secret
We all know about Michael J. Fox‘s Parkinson’s Disease. However, people had no clue back in the day, when he was starring in film and TV across the Western world. In fact, he actually had the disease for almost a decade before it became public knowledge, and he was still working meanwhile.
Ropper’s help to minimse the symptoms, which you hear about in the book, made this possible. We get an insight into where it all turned south for Fox, which was really interesting to read.
People Faking Illness
There were a couple of instances within the story where we had people faking their symptoms. Whether it was fake seizures for attention, or pretending to be blind, this actually happens for whatever reason it may be.
Sometimes, though, these people may not be faking it, but their body is! The mind is such a powerful tool that, with psychological trauma or something like that, it can trick you into thinking you’re, for example, blind.
Neurologists will take one look at the reaction of your eyes to light, and know that you can see. But, they then have to suss out whether the patient truly can’t due to their mind, or if they’re faking it for some reason.
This is a whole new area of being a neurologist I never even considered. It definitely demonstrated to me the different types of people that come through the hospital doors. Being a doctor is as much about handling people as it is about handling their bodies.
The Argument of Brain Death
One of the last chapters focused on the argument of brain death, what this means, and when a person truly becomes “dead” based on their brain function. Ropper even went as far as to discuss the seminar he went to with the Catholic Church to help come to a decision based on the Bible. This really challenged my views of when a person’s machines should be switched off, and made it clear that not even doctors have a confirmed agreement on the matter!
Is it all Trial and Error?
One thing which really stuck with me was Ropper’s description of the job as being always changing, as the brain has so many connections, there could be thousands of potential diseases for one symptom. The brain is so very complicated that a lot of it is based on personal judgement.
So, this demonstrated to me that it’s a lot of trial and error work. Every doctor will be faced with something that they’ve never seen before, as there could be millions of complications with the brain. So, everyday is a new challenge; who’s to say that, if you ever ended up in hospital for a brain issue, you wouldn’t be a guinea pig? It’s a scary thought!
Not Making Assumptions
One thing I learnt about the world of being a doctor was that you are taught not to follow your assumptions. It would seem natural to do so; to follow your instincts when it comes to any cases. But, in doing so you risk putting the blinders up, and only seeing what you want to see, rather than what is actually there.
It was very interesting to read how Ropper and his team often attempted not to do this, but it could be very tricky. Even Ropper fell into this trap once or twice, showing how difficult it is to not simply follow what you know, and think outside the box.
Did I Enjoy Reading Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole: Extraordinary Journeys into the Human Brain?
For someone who’s not the biggest fan of non-fiction, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a break from fictional tales. It definitely gave my mind a rest, although some of the stories aren’t necessarily for the faint-hearted. There were times when it definitely made me question my sanity and mortality, so be aware of this trigger warning.
Ultimately, although there were times it got a little repetitive, I found this to be an eye-opening and intriguing read. I definitely learnt a few new things along the way, so if you love to learn I have no doubt you’d enjoy this too. Although I moved swiftly back to fictional stories straight after reading this one, I was glad I gave it a go.
If you fancy giving this book a read, I managed to read it for free using my Kindle and the Amazon eReader Library. Let me know if you decide to give it a go, and do share your thoughts on it in the comments down below!