In a mere instant, Emile Allen’s life as a highly successful surgeon is destroyed. Electrocuted in an operating room accident, Allen is left with a litany of maladies, both physical and psychological: traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, seizures, debilitating migraine headaches, and physical disabilities including chronic pain and loss of fine motor control vital for his life as a surgeon. With it, he loses his very identity; he has, after all, spent the last 20 years of his life training and practicing as a surgeon.
Part memoir, part motivational self-help book, Eaten by the Tiger takes us through Allen’s journey as he works to reshape his life. From reflections on his past, we catch a glimpse of the selfless, devoted surgeon he was prior to his accident, caring for cancer patients, tending to infants, and providing medical care in developing countries. We feel the pain as he struggles with his physical and emotional recovery, his wounds deepening as he feels rebuffed and judged by the surgeons that he thought were his friends and colleagues. He shares with us his frustrations with the medical system, where judgments may be made quickly and patients do not always come first. It is a wide-sweeping book that tries to cover a lot of territory, and I found myself drawn along by the narrative, turning page after page, wanting to know more.
But that’s where the book left me: wanting more. I wanted Allen to flesh out many of the interesting experiences he hints at while discussing his process of personal growth. While some sections of the book are well developed, such as when he discusses his transformational experience at a yoga retreat, other sections left me unsatisfied.
After three years of recovery, living with his parents and unable to drive due to the seizures, Allen embarks on a six-week trip to Europe, his first real lurch towards independence since his accident. Although he summarizes the places he went and the people he spent time with — “My 45 trip mates turned out to be a bunch of uninhibited, fun-loving Aussies” — and notes that the trip changed him — “Ultimately, I felt empowered” — as his reader, I felt left out of the heart of his story, of the richness of his transformation. It’s that narrative pitfall of telling rather than showing.
The lessons Allen shares also left me feeling there was more to be said. Ultimately, his message is one of moving on, of releasing the hold that the past has on us. He writes, “By letting go and surrendering, I was now empowered to open my hands to receive the gifts of opportunity.” His words are poignant, but, if you’ve read a handful of other self-help books, you’ve heard them before. Meaning, the advice is good advice: to have gratitude for what you have, to not judge others, to let go of attachments to material possessions (and those toxic relationships). But the book lacks the how. How do we move from where we are, clutching onto the past and our expectations for the future, to a more enlightened place in which we can recognize the gifts that come wrapped in life’s challenges?
Finally, we are left not really knowing where Allen’s transformation has led him. As he is lying on the operating room floor, having just been electrocuted in the accident that transforms his life, he hears the words, “I’m not ready for you yet. You have more work to do.” While he describes this as a pivotal moment, he speaks of it relatively little throughout the book. What is this work he has to do? Does he believe it refers to personal growth? A mission in life?
Allen realizes that much of his path has been shaped by others. He writes, “As I was contemplating the loss of my identity, I wondered, ‘Is the identity I am shedding truly what I’d wanted to become in the first place?’ ” He describes how his passion to become a veterinarian was shifted, by circumstance and parental pressure, to human medicine and how his dreams of becoming a cardiac surgeon were altered by a mentor telling him he should become a urologist, as his father had been.
As a medical student just finishing training, I understand the pressures to please one’s mentors and live up to everyone’s expectations. Thus, I am acutely interested in where Allen’s post-surgeon life has led him. The book itself is mum about this. A line in the author bio offers that, “Although he no longer uses his surgeon’s scalpel, Dr. Allen now heals through his inspirational speaking and writing, touching more lives than he ever could have as a surgeon.” Thus like much of the rest of the book, the ending left me wanting more, to hear how he reshaped his life and created a new way to make a difference in the world. So while the book is a fun and relatively easy read with good take-home messages, it lacks the substance that would be key to making it applicable to daily life.
Eaten by the Tiger: Surrendering to an Empowered Life
Inspire on Purpose Publishing, 2013
Hardcover, 168 pages