Like the defense of Stalingrad…

Word count: 308 words

Reading time: about 1.5 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. Today’s comes from Rivka Galchen.

The May 13/13 New Yorker story, “Every Disease on Earth” (I can’t provide a link because the article is locked and even the online summary is currently unavailable) aspires to tell the story of hard-to-treat diseases. But, in fact, it’s really a profile of Dr. Joseph Lieber, a diagnostician and medical teacher who has spent the past 25 years at Elmhurst Hospital Center, in Queens, New York.

The author, Rivka Galchen is a medical doctor herself although she prefers to push a pen rather than a scalpel. Following med school, she received an MFA from Columbia University and established herself as a writer. She is a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances,  and a writing teacher at Columbia University. I hadn’t read any of her writing before this article but my expectations were high because I so admire the work of her  New Yorker colleague (who’s also a doctor), Atul Gawande.

I don’t think Galchen has Gawande’s writing sophistication but she grabbed my attention with one totally unexpected simile. Here it is:

The swelling goes down; the piece of skull bone, having been stored in the patient’s thigh, is eventually returned to its proper location. It was ghastly and inspiring at the same time, like the defense of Stalingrad. 

Her plain vanilla description of a grisly operation is turned on its head by the last minute ka-pow of her simile. Defense of Stalingrad? Where did that come from, in a medical story? But the comparison is surprisingly apt. One of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, the successful defense of Stalingrad meant that the German forces lost their initiative in war in the East. The patient in Galchen’s article also survived a bloody battle, and succeeded.

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