As a surgeon, Kelly Parsons has faced many dramatic life-and-death decisions. Probably none as chilling, however, as what chief resident Steve Mitchell must face in Parsons’ suspenseful debut novel, Doing Harm.
When Steve, the brilliant, young rising star of the surgical suite, becomes a pawn in a sociopathic killer’s master plan, he must make the unthinkable decision: save himself or save his patients.
Parsons gives Steve an engagingly flawed personality. He’s a whiz kid in medicine, but he's also prone to rash decisions and poor judgment. He’s a devoted husband and father of two but nonetheless spends days away from home: He sleeps, eats and works at the hospital around the clock. It’s this multidimensional treatment of Steve—and the rest of the cast—that keeps readers guessing. Nobody is perfect, but nobody seems truly capable of plotting to kill patients in their beds either.
Someone is, though, and they are somewhere in the halls of Boston’s University Hospital. Parsons lets us in on the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes hospital culture that patients rarely see. Casual operating room banter during routine procedures contrasts with highly charged emergency surgery, which Parsons makes real with authentic medical terminology that supports, rather than overpowers, the emotional impact of each scene.
Readers ride this rollercoaster of life-and-death moments along with Steve Mitchell, waiting to see what he will do to stop the killer in their midst. What would you do?
As a doctor writing about doctors, how much of your fiction do you draw from real life?
I’ve been in the medical field for over 20 years now, and much of what I’ve experienced informs specific elements of the book. The descriptions of the diseases, surgeries and complications are about as real I could make them. I also wove some of the internal politics of large, traditional teaching hospitals into the story.
Was there a particular incident that sparked the idea for Doing Harm?
No. But a central focus of Doing Harm is patient safety, a topic I’ve been interested in for many years.
"Not a day goes by without at least one of my patients teaching me something profound about illness and the human condition."
You reveal an emotionally detached, ruthlessly achievement-oriented side of medical training in Doing Harm that isn’t that far off from the psychopathic killer’s mindset. Was the parallel intentional?
A very interesting question! Yes. That’s exactly the dilemma with which the protagonist, Steve, grapples. It’s part of his moral journey. Learning how to be a doctor can be tough. Trainees must often walk a thin line between emotionally detached arrogance and the self confidence necessary to do their jobs well.
Steve Mitchell is a flawed character—he’s brilliant yet arrogant, talented but inexperienced, and not above covering his tracks to save his own skin. Why should readers like him? Should they trust him?
Readers shouldn’t necessarily trust Steve. They certainly don’t have to like him. But what I hope they do, on some level, is relate to his dilemma. I want readers to understand why he makes the choices he makes, however flawed those choices may be. The story is essentially about Steve’s moral journey. With some help along the way, Steve finishes the book a much different individual than when he began it.
Is Doing Harm intended purely as entertainment, or is it also a commentary on modern medicine?
I mostly conceived Doing Harm as entertainment. I want readers to enjoy the ride. But while the specific circumstances of the story are pure fiction, patient safety is an important issue facing modern medicine. Bad things happen to patients every day that have nothing to do with being sick. I think the medical community has made substantial progress in recognizing and fixing these problems, but we still have a long way to go.
How did your medical school experience prepare you for writing your first novel?
For me, medical school fostered two traits essential to writing: persistence and discipline.
Do you read medical thrillers yourself?
Not regularly. Although there are many fine medical thrillers, my tastes are very eclectic. I enjoy all types of genres and divide my time among them: contemporary fiction, literary fiction, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy and nonfiction.
Are there any patients who have particularly touched you in your medical practice?
Not a day goes by without at least one of my patients teaching me something profound about illness and the human condition.
What do patients do that drives you crazy?
Oftentimes, I’m frustrated not with my patients but with my inability to spend as much time with them as I would like. It’s an increasingly common complaint among doctors these days: being asked to see more patients in shorter periods of time.
With two careers and a family, you must not have a lot of free time. What do you like to do when you do get a moment?
I love spending time with my family and friends, watching movies, exercising, and—of course—reading.