We’ve had the privilege of not only meeting David Nott at his Chelsea surgery but also being operated on by him. The calm, kind person that we met, however, belies a far more complex, brave and driven character that we’ve since discovered in his fascinating book, War Doctor. For in his holidays, Nott is a surgeon operating in some of the most dangerous war zones in the world. Indeed, he seems to have a peculiar need for the adrenaline that comes when he is operating in these terror spots. He reflects on this attraction to high-risk situations, saying “it is undeniably addictive. It is a physiological reaction, as well as an emotional one. The trick is knowing when to stop, as any ex-junkie will tell you.”
In one incident recounted in War Doctor from his first humanitarian mission in Sarajevo, he tells how he found himself operating on a teenage boy with a metal fragment from a mortar stuck in his abdomen. After making an incision into the anaesthetised boy’s stomach to inspect the damage, he heard an almighty crash and the lights went out. The hospital had suffered a direct hit and Nott was left to try and stem the flow of blood from the boy’s body. No one answered when he called out. When the lights came back on, he realised that the anaesthetist, a scrub nurse and an assistant who had been working with him to save the boy’s life had all fled the room. He was alone with the boy, who had now died. The experience changed him profoundly as he realised he needed to be tougher and to protect himself –he would be no use as a surgeon if he was not alive.
There are extraordinary stories of trauma contained within War Doctor and at times, his experience of working in war zones for 25 years seem harrowing whilst he is also honest about his own struggles with mental health. But there is lightness in the book, too. He is able to laugh at himself and is candid about his spartan bachelor life (post his first marriage) and prior to his relatively recent second marriage. He also writes movingly of being brought up as a very young child by his Welsh grandparents in Camarthenshire. And he tells a wonderful anecdote about him returning from working in Aleppo, on the verge of nervous collapse and going to Buckingham Palace to have lunch with the Queen. When she asks him about his experiences of Aleppo, he finds himself unable to speak. She instinctively asks a courtier to hand her a silver box which contains biscuits for her corgis. She passes Nott a biscuit and they proceed feeding the dogs and stroking them. The Queen says “so much better than talking”.
Nott gets a happy ending: he falls in love again and is now married with two children, all of whom he is clearly besotted with. He and his wife Elly have set up a the David Nott Foundation to ensure he can teach essential skills to surgeons in “austere and hostile environments worldwide”. In an afterword written by Elly Nott, she explains that “surgically treatable conditions kill 17 million people each year; more than tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS combined” so the training that the Foundation offers is vital.
War Doctor is a brilliant, life-inspiring story but it’s the icing on the cake that it is also utterly thrilling to read about.
What did you think? Please leave your comments below. And find details about our April book club here.