Review: ‘On Rotation’

| July 20, 2022

On Rotation, a debut novel written by Chicago-based cardiology fellow and cartoonist Shirlene Obuobi, deserves much praise.

Protagonist Angie Appiah, a first generation Ghanaian-American medical student, recently finished studying for Step 1, the first part of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. We follow Angie as she begins her third year of medical school and starts to rotate through the departments of the main medical specialties in preparation for residency.

She is also dealing with a fresh break-up with Frederick, the “nice guy” that she was excited to introduce to her parents. She then meets Ricky, a new love interest who openly discusses his insecurities about his relationship with his troubled father and his ex-girlfriend. (Ricky is also incredibly supportive of Angie.) However, Angie and Ricky both need to bridge their past traumas and reconcile their fears of rejection to accept and develop a healthy relationship with one another, with several hiccups along the way.

Angie feels fully fleshed out, a first-generation Millennial who grew up with both the food and customs of Ghana and the music and the diverse culture of Chicago. She is written with such a clear voice, and the endnotes were a particularly entertaining addition to get more background on the author’s thoughts.

Angie is a strong advocate for herself but often makes mistakes in her relationships to avoid being vulnerable. As someone who also grew up as a first-generation immigrant, the familial pressures and nuances in communication that Angie struggles with her parents are something that I sincerely related with.

Although her story does include a significant romance, I think the solid and diverse gang of friends, also known as the “Sanity Circle,” that come together to help her survive the ups and downs of training are so importantly illustrated. This kind of friend group is crucial to a trainee’s well-being during the inevitable tough times of medical training (or romance).

As a fellow physician in training, Obuobi’s story wove in the funny and bittersweet day-to-day rigamarole that medical students in America experience. The book has a sense of humor about the medical system we are learning to navigate. It often feels like extreme juggling to balance the various responsibilities of studying, work on the wards, research, and extracurricular activities, not to mention the stresses experienced by those of us who start their family in medical training.

Obuobi gives a refreshingly honest portrayal of the racial disparities that affect patients and physicians of color alike. It is fulfilling to see that this subject speaks to Angie so much that she works to study and document its effect on patients in a research project despite multiple setbacks. She is not afraid to delve into the weighty topics of what happens during a code or the dizzying progress of extremely ill patients who often enter but do not leave the hospital alive.

Despite our medical field’s focus on cure and recovery, On Rotation highlights how medical students feel both a part of and an outsider to the medical system and uses that third person to highlight the importance of how physicians communicate when breaking bad news. Angie, like many physicians, starts to learn these skills as she states “[being a doctor meant] staring down the permanence of death over and over again, until it stopped feeling like something to be prevented at all costs and instead became something to be occasionally embraced.”

This great fictional story is relatable to those who have friends or family in medicine, or who are undergoing medical training themselves. It really speaks to the culture of medicine at this specific period of time. This book should definitely be on rotation for people who want to experience a slice of medical training life.