WRONGFUL DEATH: A Medical Tragedy by Sandra M. Gilbert (W.W. Norton: $22.50; 365 pp.). Your beloved spouse of 30-odd years has just died, quite unexpectedly, following fairly routine surgery for prostate cancer. What does the doctor say, a physician you chose for his nationally recognized expertise, his charming brogue and beside manner? "I know, I know, for you this is unpleasant, awful, but believe me for me it's shattering ." When first encountered in Sandra Gilbert's "Wrongful Death," this remark appears laughably insincere, impossibly arrogant, but makes sense soon enough--when it becomes clear the doctor knows he probably made a fatal mistake, in either the operating or the recovery room, following surgery upon UC Davis English professor Elliot Gilbert in 1991.

Gilbert's widow, a distinguished poet and critic and co-author of "The Madwoman in the Attic" and other books, does indeed tell "a medical tragedy" in this volume, for there's little question--even though the survivors' wrongful death lawsuit never went to trial--that UC Davis' doctors were negligent. "Wrongful Death" is an anguished j'accuse, to be sure, but it's also a loving eulogy and, most of all, an unwavering, impassioned inquest as Gilbert attempts to determine the immediate cause of her husband's medical "termination." Elliot Gilbert joked before the operation that "the chair of urology can't kill the chair of English," but his faith seems to have been misplaced, for the most plausible reading of Gilbert's appallingly contradictory, incomplete medical records indicates that he was allowed to bleed to death from internal hemorrhaging. Did a suture fail? Was a critical blood test misplaced or disregarded? Were many distinct signals of patient trauma ignored? Was there a cover-up of the true cause of death?

Sandra Gilbert will never know the answers to these questions, and one can only empathize with her long-lasting emotional denial, her desire to sleep in hopes that Elliot will somehow magically wake alongside her. "Wrongful Death" is a powerful and wrenching book, and it's deepest message loud and clear: That although survivors will eventually come to terms with the unexpected death of a loved one in medical care, they will always remember and resent a doctor's refusal to be candid about the circumstances.

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