Book Review: “Coma” by Robin Cook


Genre: Medical Thriller

Buy it!

Rating: 5 Water Towers

If you are going in for a minor operation, stay away from Operating Room 8.

Nearing the 30th anniversary of the publication of “Coma” this is still an amazing book.

After years of book learning, third year medical student, Susan Wheeler, is just embarking on the practical aspects of Med School. The transition from Student to Doctor is not easy, but, the group of students selected for the Surgery Intern program at Boston Memorial Hospital are very qualified and the most likely to succeed.

Unfortunately, for Susan, women in medicine, at least when this book was written, were not very well respected. Susan, being doubly handicapped by being both smart and beautiful, has had to work extra hard to gain respect and recognition. At Boston Memorial, the only place Susan can change into her surgical garb is in the Nurses area (not that that is bad, but, the Doctor’s changing room is Men only…how backward). Susan promptly takes the bull by the horn and walks into the Doctor’s changing area to grab some scrubs. In doing so, she walks in on her new boss, Dr. Mark Bellows, in his skivvies. An embarrassing situation for Dr. Bellows who stupidly runs away, but, it shows that Susan is not one to sit around and take what is forced upon her. An important trait as the book unfolds.

“Coma” opens with a minor surgery gone terribly wrong in Operating Room 8. The patient, 23 year old Nancy Greenly, ends up in a coma for no apparent reason. The new interns, during the course of their first set of rounds, visit Nancy who has been in a coma for about a week. Even though she is brain dead, the job of the Doctors at Boston Memorial is to keep her alive by balancing her fluid intake, and fighting any infections that may come along.

Susan is bothered, and more than a bit intrigued how a 23 year old healthy woman (Susan is also 23) can end up in this state. Asking many questions, she finds out that most of the Doctors at the hospital have disconnected their feelings, and treat patients more as objects than people, especially those in Nancy’s state. This disturbs Susan. Why is Nancy in this state? What happened to her? What can be done to prevent this from ever happening? How could this happen?

Shortly after this visit, Susan is called to administer an IV for a male patient who she turns out to have “chemistry” with and they decide to meet for dinner after he recovers from surgery. As he is rushed off to Operating Room 8, Susan heads off to finish rounds with the other four interns and Dr. Bellows.

You can guess what happens. The patient Susan likes also ends up in a coma. Susan decides that she wants to investigate coma cases that have increased in the past few years at Memorial for her third year paper.

Being more comfortable in the library doing research, Susan finds ways to shirk her intern duties to gather information (sometimes sneaky) on the hospital’s coma cases. The information she uncovers is revealing.

  • The coma rate at Boston Memorial is astronomical compared to other hospital’s coma rates
  • All the patients were in for minor surgery, or for minor illnesses.
  • All had been tissue tested (not something that is normally done since it expensive)
  • Of those who had surgery, they were operated on in Operating Room 8

Susan, being very thorough, tried to gain the support and attention of Hospital administrators and Doctors only to find her ideas and goals rejected by all…but one. Eventually, after continued attempts to gain information, Susan is KICKED OFF the program and told to leave Memorial for good.

After she leaves, she is followed home and is attacked by a Mafia type hit man. He was ordered not to kill Susan at that time, but only to threaten her to stop her from investigating further. After the attack, Susan now knows something, and someone, is up to no good and decides she has at least 48 hours of free time to find out what that is.

Unknown to her, the person she confides her plan to is the one who now orders the hit man to go back and kill her. Susan’s original plan was to visit a new long term care hospital for those poor souls who are brain dead and in a coma (ostensibly to visit her patient friend). This new type of hospital has been very successful in freeing up bed space in hospitals while caring for coma patients in a cost effective manner.

Avoiding the hit man, after a harrowing chase that leads both into a refrigerator filled with cadavers hanging from their ears, Susan manages to visit the new long term care hospital. At that hospital, the entire plan, and reason for the comas, is revealed to Susan.

Does Susan survive? Is evil thwarted? Who is behind the evil doings? What was the story behind the coma patients?

You will need to read the book to find out what happens. Suffice it to say, for those who remember tidbits from the movie, the long term care hospital is where the human “bodies” are hanging by the threads from the ceiling, all very much alive, but, brain dead. This is a very moving and disturbing image with a very Robin Cook like logical medical reason for it.

Robin Cook is one of my all time favorite authors. And “Coma” more than lives up to my expectations. This is a wonderful, tight, medical thriller with great characters and evil bad guys. I highly recommend it. I read it over 2 day’s time and those who are followers of this blog, know I am a slow reader.

NOTE: As I was reading, I realized that some of the plot twists have been borrowed by others over the intervening 30 years, so some of the surprise was taken away (at least for me). Also, interestingly, the book is still fresh 30 years later. The computer technology has obviously changed, but, this was a nice walk back into memory lane this old Techy. I hope the attitudes toward women in the Medical field have also changed, I’m sure they have.

FYI….Here is a link to the movie.


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