Book: Lives in the balance

A look at Sampson Davis' 'Living and Dying in Brick City'

Jun 26, 2013 at 5:00 am
Book: Lives in the balance

‘Living and Dying in Brick City: An E.R. Doctor Returns Home’
By Sampson Davis with Lisa Frazier Page. Spiegel & Grau; 256 pgs., $25.

It’s easy to go home again if you never really left. Dr. Sampson Davis is co-author of “The Pact” series of books detailing the paths and decisions of a trio of Newark, N.J., friends who each became doctors. “Living and Dying in Brick City” is Davis’ solo record, though his band-mates are never too far from his thoughts. Part memoir and part health guide, each chapter explores different themes of health, family, poverty and education through anecdotal tales from the emergency room (with modified names and details to protect privacy and his license).

Davis’ tales come from a permanent sense of community. He knows the people who come through those large double doors in the emergency room, sometimes personally, sometimes through archetype.

An old running buddy comes in, haggard and nearly unrecognizable, a post-graduate in street chemistry high on his CV. The classic tale is told. “Let me make some phone calls,” Davis says. “I’m going to find you a room.” Transportation and a room are found, only for him to disappear less than 24 hours into his stay.

The tragic tale of two brothers at a party — one dancing with the wrong girl, with a jealous plus-one proving ownership with slugs — is met with a college memory of Davis on the opposite end of envy’s rage. Part of what makes Davis’ story ring true, and not preachy and above the clouds, is that Davis readily admits his own youthful indiscretions — wrong turns, bad decisions, things that could have ended him, be it mortally or judicially. A bit of luck and a late adolescent correction led him through, but it all adds to his credibility. He’s a guy you know; the guy who got off the block but is still in the neighborhood.

The honesty he applies to himself is also directed at his family. A sister who fell to a life of drugs and bad men is described in explicit detail, vivid through the eyes of both a little brother and their shared mother, the constant second-chancing and inevitable disappointment of trust. What could have broken family ties dozens of times over only brings them closer and makes the contrast starker — same household, same upbringing, same neighborhood, but a few years apart. Decisions trump circumstance. Failure is not a given; neither is falling a failure of character.

The book is broken into sections and themes, and he closes out each chapter with a summation of statistics, warning signs to look for, and organizations and websites for further research, discussion and outreach.

It all serves as a guidebook of sorts: “Here’s a collection of examples of what I see outside my window, how we can affect those currently victimized, and how we can prevent future outbreaks.” The best medicine is preventative, and that doesn’t just apply to body chemistry and vital statistics. To borrow from Cee-Lo and Outkast, “Brick City” and Dr. Davis have given the map on how to get up, get out and (give) something back.