Wildcard Weekend Book Review: “The Beauty in Breaking” by Michele Harper

I have been broken many times. I suspect most people have. In practicing the Japanese art of Kintsukoroi, one repairs broken pottery by filling in the cracks with gold, silver, or platinum. The choice to highlight the breaks with precious metals not only acknowledges them, but also pays tribute to the vessel that has been torn apart by the mutability of life. The previously broken object is considered more beautiful for its imperfections. In life, too, even greater brilliance can be found after the mending.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

In her memoir The Beauty in Breaking, emergency medicine doctor Michele Harper draws on her experiences with patients to slowly address and heal the deeply-seated emotional pain of her traumatic childhood, chaos that landed her in an ER waiting room as a young teen.

All of us had converged in these hallowed halls for a chance to heal our wounds, to offer up our hurt and our pain to be eased.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

That experience led her to the decision that ER medicine would be her life’s work.

Unlike the war zone that was my childhood, I would be in control of that space, providing relief or at least a reprieve to those who called out for help … That would be my offering to the world, to myself.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

Harper offers us multiple opportunities to experience redemption as she reflects on the people in her care. The crushing blow of losing an infant makes way for healing.

After all, only an empty vessel can be filled by grace.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

A young Black man lies dying from a gunshot wound, crying for his mother:

… as he was absolved by the bright lights of the trauma bay.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

A woman in the psychiatric unit reveals an awful secret in a moment that feels like the shattering of a glass house:

We had trod mindfully over the shards and escaped with nonfatal wounds to a new freedom.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

Over and over again, Dr. Harper sees the person, not the patient.

I read this book in the early months of my ongoing recovery from a near-fatal ruptured aneurysm while on vacation in Holland in 2019. I could see myself through Harper’s eyes — a woman lying on an ER gurney bleeding internally to death. I felt her “call down the gods of repose and silence, to take the measure of their power in the moments when I need it most” just as those ER doctors in Amsterdam did in finding and sealing the rupture, snatching me back from death.

It was a short-lived victory. I was in the ICU for another month as my body failed and failed again. But, at every turn, the Amsterdam doctors and nurses not only pulled me back from the brink, they held me and my family up with kindness and compassion. As I emerged from the fog and began to recover my wasted body, my OLVG caregivers continued to treat me as a person, not a patient. They filled my heart as they healed my body.

My story has been refracted a million times over by the coronavirus pandemic as compassionate, exhausted doctors stand between COVID and death around the globe. What a time in which to see the struggle through the eyes of this passionate woman and compelling author.

In life, too, even greater brilliance can be found after the mending.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking
Portraits of hospital workers by Steve Derrick. See his Facebook page here

NOTE: The photographs on this post are portraits of hospital workers by Steve Derrick of Clifton Park, NY, who was featured by CBS News some months back. See his Facebook page here to see more paintings and to learn how to purchase them.

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