Guest Column: Alright, Let’s Call It a Draw: The Life of John Pryor, by John and Richard Pryor

I write this as a review of a book that touched me in many ways, but also as an editorial on the evolution of surgical education and practice and the impact this career choice can have on family and friends. Indeed, this review serves as a call for all health care professionals to analyze how your career choices affect the other people in your lives.

Although graphic and, at times, painful reading, this is a book you will want to read—a book about humanism in medicine, professionalism, dedication, and the drive of trauma surgeons.

Unique account

“My name is John Pryor. I’m a surgeon. I’ll be 43 next month, AND I JUST GOT KILLED.” So begins Alright, Let’s Call It a Draw: The Life of John Pryor. It is beyond rare that anyone gets to write his or her biography and philosophy after death, but John Pryor has done so with the very able assistance of his brother, whose extensive research, writing skills, and recounting of personal anecdotes from Dr. Pryor’s comprehensive diaries and e-mails bring this touching biography home. The end result is an extremely compelling and absorbing page-turner about the human spirit and the struggles that confront all individuals, families, and even societies. Even though the outcome is known from the beginning, each life decision creates intrigue and anticipation.

This one-of-a-kind book, with its unique writing style and story, is a must-read for students contemplating a health care career, trainees who are frustrated with their career choice, and those anticipating a career in trauma or emergency surgery, military medicine, and acute care surgery.

First and foremost, this book is a detailed dissection of the genome of the trauma surgeon committed to the pursuit of excellence and attention to detail in all he does, but most especially, medicine. Every medical and surgical specialty carries with it certain characteristics that make it best-suited for one personality or another, and most health care professionals in other specialties criticize the self-imposed discipline and demanding lifestyle of the trauma surgeon. This trauma surgeon trait is not located on the “Y”or “X” chromosome. Surgeons with mindsets like Dr. Pryor’s will read this book in one sitting.
Second, this book is about motivation, drive, vision, and leadership. It demonstrates that individuals can reach their goals if they are focused, deliberate, persistent, and hardworking. What is also clearly revealed is that accomplishing these objectives often comes at a high price, both for the individual and for those who are passengers in the lives of the super-driven trauma surgeon. Nevertheless, the prevalent feeling is that a career birthed out of sacrifice and dedication can be fulfilling and gratifying.

A tragic loss for all

The final chapter on “The Grief Club” alone is worth the price of the book. Although the reader knows and is often reminded of the inevitable end, even with Richard Pryor warning the reader not to read the last chapter unless you have a need to read, the reader is compelled to press on. As I read this chapter, I personally felt the pain of the family and friends of surgeons who sometimes put their passion for their craft before other people and aspects of their lives, only to realize, too late, the effect.

Finally, this book reminds us of our own mortality. John Pryor had a premonition and an acceptance of his death and even prepared for it with many instructions and documents. He told his family that he was not coming back from Iraq. We knew from the beginning of the book how it would end. That end came on Christmas Day, while his wife waited for a call from him that never came. No insights or warnings can really prepare loved ones for such a loss. The tears, the frustration, the anger, and the questions are inevitable. As John reminds us throughout his book, though death is all around us, and we attempt to make preparations, the sudden and painful loss of a husband, father, brother, and friend leaves a vacuum that no amount of planning can fill.

Our lifelong and repeated encounters with death, our personal and societal attempts to deal with death, pain, and injury, our identification with the drive and work of John Pryor, and his courage in going to the heart of danger to treat trauma patients will draw all readers into this intriguing and insightful book on the life of a (trauma) surgeon.

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