Life on the Ground Floor

James Maskalyk's memoir Life on the Ground Floor is the celebrated humanitarian doctor's unique perspective on sickness, health and what it is to be alive.

James Maskalyk

James Maskalyk is the author of the nonfiction book Life on the Ground Floor. (Michael Banasiak/Anchor Canada)

In this deeply personal book, humanitarian doctor and activist James Maskalyk, author of the highly acclaimed Six Months in Sudan, draws upon his experience treating patients in the world's emergency rooms.

From Toronto to Addis Ababa, Cambodia to Bolivia, he discovers that although the cultures, resources and medical challenges of each hospital may differ, they are linked indelibly by the ground floor: the location of their emergency rooms.

Here, on the ground floor, is where Dr. Maskalyk witnesses the story of "human aliveness" — our mourning and laughter, tragedies and hopes, the frailty of being and the resilience of the human spirit. And it's here too that he is swept into the story, confronting his fears and doubts and questioning what it is to be a doctor. 

Masterfully written and artfully structured, Life on the Ground Floor is more than just an emergency doctor's memoir or travelogue —it's a meditation on health, sickness and the wonder of human life. (From Doubleday Canada


He reveals compelling universal truths about the power, and limits, of medicine — 'life caring for itself,' as he defines it — the strength of human will, and the fragile, infinitesimal gap between dying and living.- 2017 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction jury


Life on the Ground Floor won the 2017 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Life on the Ground Floor is on the Canada Reads 2019 longlist.

James Maskalyk on his responsibility as an emergency room doctor

"The emergency room should be seen as an example of life trying to care for itself and thrive. It's like my own job as a doctor — when people come in with a wound that is too big for their body to close by itself, I close it.  What does that look like when you're personally and emotionally invested in this outcome?

I get my job right when I can have love for my patients, even though they are strangers when I treat them.- James Maskalyk

"I get my job right when I can have love for my patients, even though they are strangers when I treat them. A type of love where I would do anything for them within my power to help them heal."

Read more of James Maskalyk's interview with CBC Books.

From the book

I've been cutting down my shifts in the last few years so I can spend more time on Ethiopia. I work about ten a month now. It's just enough to keep my skills up. Fewer, and my fingers fumble.

When I graduated, I did twice as many. During those months, being in the ER was simpler than it has been since. My flow was natural, my hands steady, and my patients' faces grew as indistinct as the date or time. It was the hours outside of work that started to hurt. It is easy to ignore your own worries when there is a never-ending list of worse ones placed in front of you. My rela­tionship failed. Friends fell away. Beauty too. I felt fine.

I wasn't. Fatigue caught up with me and I slowed down for a minute, looked around, wondered where everyone was. 

If we in ER gather in community, it is to talk about how to resuscitate a baby, to poke needles into fake plas­tic necks, or to practise for poison-gas subway attacks. We don't practise joy, how to stay well in the face of all the sickness.

Doctor, Nurse, heal thyself.

From Life on the Ground Floor by James Maskalyk ©2017. Published by Doubleday Canada.


Other books by James Maskalyk

Interviews with James Maskalyk

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