Cover image of The House of God

Samuel Shem’s classic novel/satire of medicine, The House of God (published in 1978, more than two million copies sold), follows protagonist Dr. Roy Basch as he struggles through his year as an internal medicine intern. A second physician recommends Basch switch careers to one of six no-patient-contact specialties: Rays, Gas, Path, Derm, Eyes, or Psych. These names translate to radiology, anesthesia, pathology, dermatology, ophthalmology, and psychiatry. These specialties are touted as lower stress choices with superior lifestyles, where time with sick patients is minimized and the physician is more likely to be happy.

Is this true? Is anesthesia worthy of Samuel Shem’s assessment that it’s a cushy specialty?

My answer, after thirty years of anesthesia practice, is … it depends.

Let’s examine each of the six specialties regarding their perceived advantages:

• Radiology involves a career of peering at digital images of X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, or ultrasound studies. Patient contact is minimal. Because many of these tests are ordered in emergency rooms at all hours of the night, on-call radiologists work long hours and endure sleepless nights. As well, the subspecialty of Invasive Radiology has become a hands-on field that requires as much patient contact as most surgical specialties.
• Pathology involves a career of peering through a microscope, running a clinical lab to determine blood and urine chemistry results, or performing autopsies. Most of pathology requires zero contact with living patients. Most pathology work is done in daylight hours, and loss of sleep is unusual.
• Dermatology involves a career of seeing a multitude of patients (think 80 – 100 per day) in a busy clinic practice. Patient volume and patient contact are high. Each clinic visit is brief because only the specific skin lesions in question are fair game for physician-patient interrogation. Hospitalized patients are uncommon, there are few emergencies, and loss of sleep is unusual.
• Ophthalmology involves an office practice of examining the vision and eyes of patients, as well as an operating room practice of performing cataract, retinal, or corneal surgeries. Other than an occasional eye trauma surgery at a late hour, loss of sleep for ophthalmologists is unusual.
• Psychiatry involves an outpatient practice of verbal therapy and/or prescribing oral medications (e.g. antidepressants, anti-anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder meds). Inpatient psychiatry is usually limited to patients with severe depression and psychotic diseases. Most emergencies are limited to patients with after-hours suicidal ideation or attempts. Loss of sleep is unusual.
• Anesthesiology involves providing unconsciousness and medical management to patients during all types of surgical interventions. Surgeries occur at all hours of the day and night. Loss of sleep is common, and job stress during select cases can be extreme. Let’s examine lifestyle issues of anesthesia practice in more detail:

An anesthesiologist and his or her awake surgical patient are only together for only 15 minutes prior to induction of anesthesia, during which time they exchange information on medical history and informed consent. This brief duration doesn’t exactly qualify for The House of God’s no-patient-contact list, but anesthesia does qualify as very-little-awake-patient contact. Minimal time with conscious patients appeals to physicians who don’t relish prolonged face-to-face patient interaction.

An image of your anesthesiologist playing tennis or golf and then waltzing into the operating room at leisure to do a simple surgery is mistaken. The presence of an anesthesiologist is imperative for nearly every emergency procedure. All emergency medical care follows the guideline of A-B-C, or Airway-Breathing-Circulation, and anesthesiologists are airway specialists nonpareil. Emergency room attendings and head and neck surgeons have certain airway skills, but no other specialty has the depth of airway expertise that anesthesiologists own. An anesthesiologist provides care for 500–1000 patients per year, and every one of these patients requires acute management of the airway to assure safe oxygenation and breathing.

Trauma surgery, childbirth, acute surgical disease from the emergency room, and organ transplant surgery are as common at night as in the daytime. An on-call anesthesiologist at a busy community hospital may arrive at 6:30 a.m., do seven or eight surgical anesthetics which last until dusk, and then remain in the hospital all night to perform several epidural anesthetics on laboring women, anesthetize an 80-year-old woman for surgery to relieve a bowel obstruction, and replace an endotracheal tube in a struggling patient in the intensive care unit as the sun comes up the following day. An on-call anesthesiologist at a university hospital may arrive at 6:30 a.m. and attend to a complex liver-transplant surgery which lasts 20 hours and concludes at 3 a.m. A cushy specialty? Hardly.

A lifestyle advantage for anesthesiologists is that we can work hard and play hard. It’s possible for an anesthesiologist to take weeks or months off at a time if their employer or anesthesia group approves. There’s no chronic patient care/patient follow up, no clinic overhead, and no clinic employee overhead. For these reasons an anesthesiologist can schedule multiple weeks without work or income more easily than a clinic doctor can. For these reasons it’s also possible for an anesthesiologist to work part time, i.e. two or three days each week. This scheduling flexibility is an excellent lifestyle advantage, and for this reason my answer to whether anesthesia is a cushy specialty is … it depends.

Some anesthesiologists choose to spend their career outside the operating room. Some specialize in pain management and see patients in outpatient pain clinics—selected patients are taken to the operating room non-urgently to receive pain-injection procedures such as epidural steroid injections, nerve blocks, or pain pump insertions. A small number of anesthesiologists run preoperative assessment clinics where they assess the medical status of patients prior to surgery. A small number of anesthesiologists supervise intensive care units and manage critically patients who require ventilators, cardio-active medications, and anesthesia sedation infusions.

I’d like to leave you with one image imprinted in your mind—that of an anesthesiologist toiling over an ill patient at 2 a.m. in a hospital. The patient may have survived a car crash, suffered a ruptured appendix, be delivering twin babies, or be the recipient of a lung transplant. Wherever there’s a sick patient who needs acute supervised unconsciousness, there’s an anesthesiologist present. In words John Steinbeck wrote at the conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad tells his mother,

“I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere.
Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.
Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.
I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad.
I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

This prompts me to pen parallel text regarding my specialty, entitled
Tom Joad the Anesthesiologist:

I’ll be all around in the dark—I’ll be everywhere.
Wherever you can look—wherever there’s a motorcycle accident, a Cesarean section, a heart transplant, I’ll be there.
Wherever there’s a cop dragging a knifed-up gang member into the E.R., I’ll be there.
I’ll be there when the surgeon screams and when the new mother laughs,
When the 100-year-old gets his hernia mended and when the 4-year-old gets his tonsils out—I’ll be there, too.
Ma, it’s just what I do.
It’s what we all do.






Introducing …  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.

Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

On October 2, 2014 THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN became the world’s  #1 bestselling anesthesia Kindle book on

To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:


Stanford professor Dr. Nico Antone leaves the wife he hates and the job he loves to return to Hibbing, Minnesota where he spent his childhood. He believes his son’s best chance to get accepted into a prestigious college is to graduate at the top of his class in this remote Midwestern town. His son becomes a small town hero and academic star, while Dr. Antone befriends Bobby Dylan, a deranged anesthetist who renamed and reinvented himself as a younger version of the iconic rock legend who grew up in Hibbing. An operating room death rocks their world, and Dr. Antone’s family and his relationship to Mr. Dylan are forever changed.

Equal parts legal thriller and medical thriller, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan examines the dark side of relationships between a doctor and his wife, a father and his son, and a man and his best friend. Set in a rural Northern Minnesota world reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan details scenes of family crises, operating room mishaps, and courtroom confrontation, and concludes in a final twist that will leave readers questioning what is of value in the world we live in.


5.0 out of 5 stars The Doctor and Mr Dylan, March 3, 2015
prabha venugopal (chicago, il USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
Gripping from the beginning to the end. Very well written, bringing to the forefront all the human emotions seen in an operating room spill over into real life. I cannot wait for Dr. Novak to wrote another book! As another physician in the same profession, my admiration for his book knows no limits.


Bang-Up Debut Novel, November 16, 2014

By Norm Goldman “Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures”

This part legal and medical thriller is structured with a mixed bag of situations involving relationships, jealousy, evil, lies, courtroom drama, operating room mishaps as well as moments that engender conflicting and unexpected outcomes. Noteworthy is that as the suspense builds readers will become eager to uncover the truth involving a mishap concerning Nico and a surgical procedure that has unanticipated ramifications.

This is a bang-up debut from a writer who understands timing and is able to deliver hairpin turns, particularly involving the courtroom drama,that you would expect from a book of this genre. PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 4, 2015

“The Doctor & Mr. Dylan” by Rick Novak (Pegasus Books, $17.50)

Dr. Nico Antone doesn’t hide the fact he hates his wife, but he says he didn’t kill her during an operation. The authorities think otherwise and his trial is the riveting suspense in this novel that is part medical thriller, part legal thriller, part exploration of family relationships.

Nico is an anesthesiologist (as is the author) who leaves his wife, their plush life in California and his job at Stanford to move to his hometown of Hibbing so their son, Johnny, has a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. Johnny hates the idea of moving to a small, cold town, but he’s popular from the first day in school. Nico doesn’t do so well. He’s envied by Bobby, an anesthetist who’s jealous of the better-educated Nico. But it’s hard to take Bobby seriously, since he thinks he’s the young Bob Dylan and lives in the house where Bobby Zimmerman grew up. To complicate matters, Nico is attracted to the mother of the young woman his son is dating. When the two teens get in trouble, Nico’s furious, rich wife comes to Minnesota and needs an emergency operation that puts her on Nico’s operating table.

Novak grew up in Hibbing, where he worked in the iron ore mines and played on the U.S. Junior Men’s Curling championship teams of 1974 and ’75. After graduating from Carleton College, he earned a medical degree at the University of Chicago and spent 30-plus years at Stanford Hospital, where he was an associate professor of anesthesia and Deputy Chief of the Anesthesia Department. His courtroom scenes are based on his experiences as an expert witness.

The Physician’s Late-Night Reading List

Two Pritzker alums pen captivating tales

By Brooke E. O’Neill, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, editir, Medicine on the Midway Magazine

For most physicians, writing — patient notes, case histories, perhaps journal articles — is part of the job. But for anesthesiologist-novelist Rick Novak, MD’80, and neurosurgeon-memoirist Moris Senegor, MD’82, it’s a second career that consumes early morning hours long before they step into the OR.

Fans of John Grisham will find a kindred spirit in Novak, whose fast-paced medical thriller, The Doctor & Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014), transports readers to rural Northern Minnesota, where an accomplished physician and a deranged anesthetist who thinks he’s rock legend Bob Dylan see their worlds collide in the most unexpected ways.

Delivering real-life twists and turns — and a love letter to the Bay Area — is Senegor’s Dogmeat: A Memoir of Love and Neurosurgery in San Francisco (Xlibris, 2014), a coming-of-age tale chronicling the author’s away rotation with renowned neurosurgeon Charles Wilson, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco. Brutally honest, it spares no details of a time Senegor, who also served as a resident under the University of Chicago’s famed neurosurgery chair Sean Mullan, MD, describes as “one of the biggest failures of my life.”

One a vividly imagined nail-biter, the other an intimate peek into the surgical suite, both books deliver an ample dose of intensity and drama.



The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014) by Rick Novak, MD’80

“I thought it was a novel way of killing someone,” said Rick Novak, deputy chief of anesthesiology at Stanford University, describing the imagined hospital death that was the genesis of his dark thriller The Doctor & Mr. Dylan. A huge Bob Dylan fan — the rock icon was born in Novak’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the story takes place — he then dreamed up a possible culprit: a psychotic anesthetist who thinks he’s Dylan.

From there, the words flowed. “I would write whenever I was with my laptop and had a free moment: in mornings, in evenings, in gaps between cases,” said Novak, who also blogs about anesthesia topics. “I don’t sleep much.”

After finishing the manuscript — one year to write, another to edit — came the challenge of finding a publisher. “In anesthesia, I’m an expert,” Novak said. “In the literary world, I’m an unknown.” After 207 responses of “no, thanks” or no answer at all, he landed an agent. Two months later, she informed him that Pegasus Books had bought his debut novel.

“I started crying,” Novak admits. “I have a third grader and at the time the big word the class was learning was ‘perseverance.’ That was it exactly.”


Dr. Joseph Andresen, Editor, Santa Clara County Medical Association Medical Bulletin, from the January/February 2015 issue:


This past month, Dr. Rick Novak handed me a hardbound copy of his debut novel The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Rick and I go way back. It was my first week of residency at Stanford when we first met. A newcomer to the operating room, all the smells and sounds were foreign to me despite my previous three years in the hospital as an internal medicine resident. Rick, a soft spoken Minnesotan at heart, in his second year of residency, took me under his wing and guided me through those first few bewildering months, sharing his experience and wisdom freely.

Fast-forward 30 years later. Dr. Rick Novak, a novel and mystery author? This was new to me as I sat down and opened the first page of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Few books highlight a physician/anesthesiologist as a protagonist, and few books feature a SCCMA member as a physician/author. However, a medical-mystery theme novel wasn’t at the top of my must read list. With my 50-hour workweek, living and breathing medicine, imagining more emotional stress and drama was the furthest thing from my mind. However, three days later, as I turned the last page, and read the last few words. “life is a series of choices. I stuck my forefinger into the crook of the steering wheel, spun it hard to the left and …” This completed my 72-hour journey of and free moments I had, completely immersed in this story of life’s disappointments, human imperfections, and simple joys.

Rick, I can’t wait for your next book. Bravo!


Hibbingite writes twisted medical tale

HIBBING — Readers who are looking for a whodunit that will keep them up all night are in for a treat.

Hibbing native Rick Novak recently released his first book “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a fiction set in Hibbing that merges anesthesia complications, a tumultuous marriage and the legend of Bob Dylan.

“The dialogue is sometimes funny, and there are lots of plot twists,” he said.

Novak said the book will not only entertain readers, but teach them about anesthesiology, Dylanology, the stressful race for elite college admission, and life on the Iron Range.

“The book is very conversational and streamlined,” he said. “I try to write as one would tell a story out loud.”

Novak said “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan” took him three years to perfect. He is currently working on his second book.


5.0 out of 5 stars I Sense We Have Another F.Scott Fitzgerald Emerging on the Literary Scene, December 1, 2014
Deann Brady (Sunnyvale, CA USA) – See all my reviews
I found Rick Novak’s first novel, “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a most exciting combination of biting sarcasm, mystery and daily activity spun with fresh new phrases that made me turn my ear back to listen to the literary cadence of his words again and again even though, on the other hand, I was anxious to turn the pages to see what would happen next. His brilliant handling of scenes is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A compelling read!Deany Brady, author of “An Appalachian Childhood”




allan mishra

This review is from: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Kindle Edition)

Just finished Dr. Novak’s delightful novel. I sincerely enjoyed his honest take about the pressures and values that exist within California’s Silicon Valley. He also brought the North Country of Minnesota to life with memorable characters and a twisting, addictive plot. Buried beneath the fun and funny story is a deeper message about how to best care for your kids, your relationships and yourself. Very well written and highly recommended.


Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick by clicking on the picture below:




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