Carol Cassella

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(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky SEP 2, 2008)

"There is a moment during the induction of general anesthesia when I am intimately bonded to my patient. A moment of transferred power. I squeeze the drug out of the syringe, into the IV line, and watch the face slacken, watch the last organized thoughts slip from consciousness, see breathing shallow, slow, stop."

The protagonist of Carol Cassella's Oxygen is thirty-seven year old anesthesiologist Dr. Marie Heaton, a dedicated and conscientious physician. After introducing herself to her patients and reassuring them that they are in good hands, she administers drugs that bring about "a temporary loss of sensation, an absence of pain during ... otherwise painful procedure[s]." Marie loves her job, "its precision and focus, its balance of technical skill and judgment." For the past seven years, her excellent performance has earned her the respect of her colleagues at First Lutheran Hospital in Seattle, Washington. Although she is single and childless, Marie is too busy to dwell on her ticking biological clock and her anemic social life. She once had a fling with a fellow anesthesiologist, Joe Hillary. However, they decided to settle for a platonic friendship and are now best buddies rather than lovers.

Marie's life comes to a screeching halt when she administers anesthesia to an eight-year old girl named Jolene Jansen. For some inexplicable reason, Jolene's heart rate plummets and her blood loses its oxygen supply. Although Dr. Heaton tries every technique at her disposal to bring the child back, she fails. This devastating tragedy leads to sleepless nights during which Marie second-guesses herself, wondering what she could have done differently. She is also on tenterhooks waiting for the inevitable malpractice suit to be filed. Marie is raked over the coals by lawyers and members of the hospital board, but she is more concerned with Jolene's mother, Bobbie, who is disconsolate over her daughter's death.

This is a touching book about a courageous and compassionate woman who is nearly brought to her knees by a series of calamities. Cassella's descriptive writing is beautifully crafted and she thoughtfully explores the ways in which people either support or undermine one another. The events in this novel demonstrate how selfish and callous individuals bring untold misery to their friends, family, and coworkers. The author, who is an anesthesiologist, provides an insider's look into the political, legal, and human sides of modern hospital care. She also imbues the story with an added dimension by shedding light on Marie's personal life. Although she has deep affection for her younger sister, Lori, and her adolescent niece, Elsa, Marie has no idea how to cope with her seventy-nine year old father. He is a former history professor who is steadily losing his eyesight and his ability to function independently.

Oxygen is suspenseful and engrossing; it builds in intensity until it reaches its electrifying conclusion. Marie, the first person narrator, tells her account in the present tense with an intimacy that draws us in and keeps us invested in the outcome. The title is an elegant metaphor: Just as oxygen makes physical existence possible, so do productive work and love provide the psychological and spiritual sustenance that bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 300 reviews


Editor's Note: In the afterword, the author mentions author Michael Collins as mentor.... how lucky for us all!

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About the Author:

Carol CassellaCarol Cassella grew up in Dallas, Texas. She majored in English Literature at Duke University and graduated from Baylor College of Medicine in 1986. She currently practices anesthesia in Seattle and is a freelance medical writer specializing in global public health advocacy for the developing world.

She lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington with her husband and their two sets of twins. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014