Mount Shasta retired surgeon pens harrowing medical memoir, 'Red Blanket'
A teenage girl who chewed off the lower half of her face. A prisoner who swallowed a handful of tattoo needles. A man with a hole in his heart, another man’s finger shoved inside keeping him alive. No, these aren’t “Grey’s Anatomy” storylines – they’re medical cases recounted in Dr. John Harch’s new book “Red Blanket” – and they’re all 100% true.
“Red Blanket” is a tightly written, shocking and bizarrely hilarious memoir that recounts Harch’s harrowing training at an inner-city trauma hospital in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
The book is a #1 new release in Amazon’s “surgery” category, although Harch dismisses this as a sign of success, pointing out that there are “a zillion writers” on Amazon, selling “a zillion books.”
Among those are countless self published disasters as well as a number of decent reads, littered here and there with true gems. Harch, who lives in Mount Shasta and worked as a general surgeon for years at Mercy Mt. Shasta, took pains to ensure his book would be in the latter category. And while “Red Blanket” is doing well since its May 20 launch, Harch said the only way to determine a book’s true success is the number of copies it sells.
Most self published authors see a flurry of sales when their book is first released, selling 200 or 300 copies before excitement settles down and things taper off, Harch explained.
Over the past month, Harch has sold about 300 copies and he’s interested to see if he can “buck the trend” of the traditional publishing world to gain a wider audience.
Expertly edited by his wife, Lori, “Red Blanket” should captivate a wide audience. It’s the kind of book that can be digested in small chunks, although it’s hard to stop reading once you start. It’s vividly written as if you’re there, watching a newbie put a trach tube down a distressed patient’s throat or wrestling with a patient on drugs who refuses to cooperate with doctors.
The book is also a tale of his – and Lori’s – coming of age. Harch reveals some intimate details of their early relationship and eventual marriage.
The writing process
Harch wrote what he considers to be the most harrowing of the book’s 31 chapters about 20 years ago. It’s the story of what he describes as the worst night of his life.
“I had to get that one off my chest, so I could move forward,” Harch said of the chapter about “Doruk,” a 31 year-old Turkish man who needed a tumor removed from his lung. “It had been eating me for years.”
Little by little, Harch wrote bits and pieces until he had accumulated a handful of chapters. He often talked about putting them into a book, but didn’t get serious until a friend who writes screenplays and novels encouraged him to “get to it.”
“That was in November about three years ago, and I decided to get serious,” said Harch. After that, “Red Blanket” poured out of him.
The problem, Harch said, was his book was too long at 145,000 words. At the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Ore. Harch learned several important things, including the fact that publishers and agents generally won’t touch a book that’s more than 90,000 words.
So Harch went home and reviewed the book word by word, sentence by sentence, and cut anything that wasn’t necessary.
“When you’ve worked so hard, and a story is a part of you, it’s hard to cute a third of it out,” said Harch. “But some of it had to go.”
Lori – who was a magazine editor at the time Harch was honing his surgical skills – read through his draft again and pointed out that while it was good, Harch hadn’t included any of his personal feelings or reflections about the cases. So Harch spent another month adding personal touches to the book.
At the writing conference, Harch pitched “Red Blanket” to three agents. One, he said, was reticent at first, insisting that only certain kinds of memoirs sell. After reading Harch’s book, however, the agent liked it. He asked Harch to make some adjustments to the beginning and then took it to publishers, getting “very close” to having one of them pick it up.
Harch ultimately decided to self publish “Red Blanket.” He has been sending copies of the book to different book groups as well as media outlets, like Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore. in the absence of a traditional publisher, who spends considerable funds to advertise their publications. The surest way to get exposure, Harch said, would be for a famous person or author to read “Red Blanket” and post a review.
For those who are thinking about writing a book, Harch has two pieces of advice to offer.
First: it’s work.
“At one point, I sat with my book in front of me and I thought, ‘I’m going to have to go through every line, looking for awkward words or words that aren’t dynamic. Is this something I really want to do?’”
Harch decided that evening that he did – a decision he’s pleased with, although there was a time when he was about halfway through and had doubts about the book’s merit.
Secondly, Harch said it is difficult for a self published author to beat the traditional publishing industry and gain national attention.
Harch set the price for a “Red Blanket” paperback at the lowest Amazon would allow: $11.99, in hopes he’d get more exposure that way. Of that amount, Harch receives $1.23 per book. He gets more for e-books, around $2, since Amazon doesn’t have any expenses associated with the sale, like printing or shipping.
At this point, Harch said he’s made back about half of what he invested to have the book professionally formatted.
While Harch has dreams of his book gaining national attention, if he doesn’t sell another copy, “it will have been worth it.”
His two goals, he said, were to share all the weird stories he had saved up, and to give people a peek behind the curtain to see what goes on during surgical training.
Harch said he’s received great reviews on Amazon (none of them are from relatives, Lori points out) and good feedback from friends and acquaintances, including Dr. Sean Malee, who commented that “Red Blanket” brought back memories of his own medical training.
In the 1980s, Harch explained there were no limits on how much a surgeon in training could work. In the late 1990s, however, a set of laws were passed to set such limits, followed by another set in the mid-2000s. Today, surgeons in residency programs are allowed to work just 80 hours a week and there are regulations about breaks between 24 hour shifts.
In the book, Harch talks about a rotation he had in the burn unit when he worked 141 hours in one week, which averages to be about 20 hours a day for seven days straight. There were some days, he said, when he wouldn’t eat or drink anything for 18 hours – and these aren’t hours at a desk. “You’re on your feet, running constantly,” he said.
You’d think everything would be a whirlwind and it’d be difficult for Harch to recount his stories with such accuracy. He explained, however, that he kept a journal, starting early in his internship, which documented anything he saw or did that seemed noteworthy.
“Intermittently, I would pull out the journal, and reading it would curl my toes,” Harch writes in the book’s preface. “It still does. And there remain tales in it which are not described in this book.”
That’s saying something, considering the variety of crazy cases he does include, ranging from a man who eluded the medical team by swallowing his severed penis, rather than showing up at the hospital with it in his pocket to be sewn on again; to a 69 year-old man who liked Juicy Fruit gum so much that he ... well, you’ll have to read “Red Blanket” to find out.
To purchase “Red Blanket” or to read reviews, go to https://rb.gy/4uwa92