The Quality of Mercy

At a small hospital in Vermont, nurses practice medicine as an art, marshaling compassion and skill in equal measure

Writers Joyce and Richard Wolkomir crossed the threshold of Central Vermont Medical Center, not far from their home, to create an extraordinary account of two nurses at work. This hour-by-hour chronicle of Deborah Farnham and Alma Mueller — and their patients — is a gripping foray into the inner life of a hospital.

In this era of managed care, Farnham and Mueller continue to practice a kind of medicine that we assume has nearly vanished, bringing to their rounds tenderness and profound competence. As Farnham's and Mueller's stories unfold, we also come to understand their life stories and the choices that brought them to this work. "I love taking care of people," says Farnham. "I always have."

For their patients — a young mother stricken with a rare form of colon cancer, an elderly Alzheimer's patient, a woman undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia — the ministrations of these nurses are critical to their comfort, and their survival.

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