Book review

Saving a Stranger’s Life: The diary of an emergency room doctor

Anne Biccard


Review: Chantel Erfort

Six years ago someone close to me started exhibiting very strange behaviour and a distinct change in personality.

Turns out it was a brain tumour which had been silently growing for years.

Over the next year we found ourselves in and out of public hospitals, eventually becoming surprisingly unaffected by each new symptom or experience.

It was then that I started reading books about neurosurgery and then more broadly about hospitals and public health systems.

Saving a Stranger’s Life was the first one I read that was set in South Africa, in a context that was fairly familiar.

While Anne Biccard’s writing style, story structure – and even the cover of her book – reminded me of others I had read, what makes her story stand out is that it had a specific focus on working in an emergency room during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Biccard’s writing is easy to read and she has a great sense of pace and timing.

Her dark humour, short, sharp sentences and the tendency to end a chapter unresolved and with the reader wondering what on earth they just read, reminded me of Adam Kaye’s This is Going to Hurt: Secret diaries of a junior doctor. Even the name was similar.

But she also tells her stories with care and warmth so you never feel like she is making fun of anyone involved in the cases she shares – even when these stories are really funny.

In an interview done around the time of the book launch, Biccard says she started writing Saving a Stranger’s Life when she had decided to leave the emergency department of the Joburg hospital she had worked in for more than 20 years.

Recalling the work of her colleagues in the emergency department (ED), she noted: “My need to tell their stories, and the feeling of being in exile, gave rise to the need to write it all down.”

Despite my initial reservations, I really enjoyed Saving a Stranger’s Life.