Life Support

by Tess Gerritsen

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Year published: 1997
Category: medical thriller; science thriller; some forensic mystery elements

Tech rating (out of 5):


ER doctor Toby Harper works the night shift, her days eclipsed by caring for her mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. She’s a good doctor, thorough and devoted—but one night she loses a patient. He didn’t die; the demented and confused elderly man walked out of the ER and disappeared. Toby tries to find the man, who came from an exclusive retirement facility for the wealthy, but the staff at the retirement community offer no help. When a second man from the retirement center comes to her ER with similar symptoms, Toby suspects some kind of outbreak.

Her pursuit of the truth entangles her with a medical examiner, a devious caregiver, a pregnant prostitute, and a conspiracy worthy of the Nazis. The cost of her determination keeps rising—along with the body count.


Life Support is a conventional format medical thriller, in the familiar style of Michael Palmer or Robin Cook, written by a physician, internist Tess Gerritsen. The protagonist is a physician, and action at the hospital (both medical action and hospital politics) are central to the story. The plot cleaves to the standard formula. (Female) emergency room physician with bundles of personal problems struggles to do the right thing for her patients in the face of resistance from administrators. She is the only person who senses that something is terribly wrong, and she risks her career (and ultimately her life) to discover the truth.

What raises Life Support to the 4-star level is the skill with which Tess Gerritsen plays out this not-entirely-original kind of premise. Gerritsen’s pacing is excellent, her writing is very good, and her use of medical/scientific detail is superb. (Don’t expect much of a mystery; while the technical details of what the bad guys are doing aren’t clear until the end, it’s pretty obvious who the bad guys are and what motivates them.)

For better or worse (depending on your tastes), what distinguishes this book (and others of Gerritsen’s) from Michael Palmer’s work is a touch of horror. Life Support has a higher emotional intensity, and part of that emotion is fear and revulsion, not merely suspense. (What do I mean by horror? Think medical rape, and being buried alive.) If you like a bit of that kind of thing in your thrillers, Gerritsen is the author for you.

Setting: Boston area
Key words: dementia; pituitary hormones; spongiform encephalopathy; Creutzfelt-Jakob disease; prions; abortion; anti-aging therapy; homeobox genes; warfarin; embryo harvesting.

If you prefer your medical thrillers squeaky-clean and horror-free, try: Code Blue by Richard Mabry.

Comments are closed.