Showing 1 - 10 of 121 annotations contributed by Shafer, Audrey

The Wound Dresser

Coulehan, Jack

Last Updated: Nov-23-2016
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

The collection is prefaced and named for a poem by Walt Whitman, The Wound Dresser, annotated in this database by Jack Coulehan. In “On Reading Walt Whitman’s ‘The Wound Dresser’” Coulehan sees Whitman as a nurse tending the Civil War wounded, and, while using some of the words and language of Whitman’s poem, imagines himself moving forward in that created space of caring for patients: “You remain / tinkering at your soldier’s side, as I step / to the next cot and the cot after that.” (p. ix) The poem introduces us to all the ‘cots’ of the book – where we step from patient to patient, through history and geography, and through the journey of medical training.   The book is comprised of 4 sections without overt explanation, although there are 4 pages of Notes at the end of the book with information about select individual poems. In general, the themes of the sections can be described as: 1.) clinical care of individual patients and medical training; 2.) reflections on historical medical cases, reported anecdotes or past literary references; 3.) meditations on geographically distinct episodes – either places of travel or news items; and 4.) family memoir, personal history and the passage of time.   Many of the poems have been previously published and a few are revised from an earlier chapbook. Notable among the latter is “McGonigle’s Foot” (pp 42-3) from section 2, wherein an event in Philadelphia, 1862 – well after the successful public demonstration of anesthesia was reported and the practice widely disseminated, a drunk Irishman was deemed unworthy of receiving an anesthetic. Although it is easy to look back and critique past prejudices, Coulehan’s poem teaches us to examine current prejudices, bias and discrimination in the provision of healthcare choices, pain relief and access to care.   There are many gems in these 72 poems. Coulehan has an acute sensibility about the variety of human conditions he has the privilege to encounter in medical training and clinical practice. However, one of the standouts for me was “Cesium 137” based on a news report of children finding an abandoned radiotherapy source (cesium) in Goiania Brazil, playing with the glowing find and suffering acute radiation poisoning. He writes: “the cairn of their small lives / burst open…their bodies vacillate and weaken / hour by hour, consumed by innocence / and radiant desire.” (p. 68).   Following another poem inspired by Whitman, Coulehan concludes the collection with a sonnet “Retrospective.” He chronicles a 40-year career along with physical aging, memories of medical training “etched in myelin,” and the search for connection across that span of career including, “those he hurt, the woman / he killed with morphine, more than a few he saved.” Ultimately, he relies on hope with fitting understatement: “His ally, hope, will have to do.” (p. 97)

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Painting

Summary:

Theodor Billroth, one of the most innovative and outstanding surgeons and educators of late 19th century European medicine, is depicted in this painting at the height of fame when he was about 60 years old. Billroth, in full white beard, stands in the center of the canvas, looking away from the patient--an assistant is handing him a surgical instrument. His visage is regal, his bearing composed.Seven white-coated assistants surround the patient, who lays supine with his head elevated. The patient's head is shaved, and according to the artist's notes, the operation is a neurotomy for trigeminal neuralgia--a painful condition of the face. The patient is receiving general anesthesia by open drop method. Billroth favored a mixture of alcohol, chloroform, and ether, anticipating a modern trend to administer multiple agents in anesthesia. Billroth is also using Lister's methods of sterilization and antisepsis. Note that rubber gloves were not yet used in surgery at this time.Light from a large window to the surgeon's right bathes the operating theater with brightness. A full gallery of onlookers includes the artist on the right side of the first row, and the Duke of Bavaria, seated at the opposite end, who came to the operations and lectures for entertainment. Billroth was a celebrated teacher, and thousands came to the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, the General Hospital of the University of Vienna, to observe and study his techniques.

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When Breath Becomes Air

Kalanithi, Paul

Last Updated: Feb-18-2016
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Paul Kalanithi, diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer when he was a neurosurgery resident at Stanford University, was faced with a decision. Should he truncate his career in neurosurgery in order to become a writer - a career he had always envisioned for himself after completing a couple of decades of neurosurgery practice? Married to Lucy Kalanithi, an internist he had met in medical school, Paul’s career and future had looked bright and promising. But as he entered his final year of a seven-year residency, symptoms of excruciating back pain and significant weight loss began. Garbed in a hospital gown, he examines his own CT scan – this is how we meet Paul at the beginning of the Prologue. He then writes of the relatively brief period of misdiagnosis prior to the CT scan. With the initial negative plain x-rays, he is started on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. But breakthrough pain and continued weight loss leads to the CT. Paul the physician understands the death sentence the images portend; Paul the patient is just beginning his journey. The diagnosis and treatment cause him to reassess his decisions about his life, to decide to father a child even though he knows he will never see the child grow up, and ultimately to write a memoir, essentially for his daughter.

Paul had graduated from Stanford with undergraduate and master’s degrees which reflected his dual love of literature and science. He combined these in a second master’s degree from Cambridge University in the history and philosophy of science and medicine before attending Yale for his medical degree. He and his wife return to California for residencies. The book is largely a blend of his dual interests: a deep and abiding love and faith in literature and how words can reveal truths, and a passion for the practice and science of neurosurgery. The rupture of fatal illness into his life interrupts his dogged trajectory towards an academic medical career, and, like all ruptures, confounds expectations and reorients priorities.

The book has five parts: a foreword by physician-writer Abraham Verghese, who notes the stunning prose Paul produced for an initial article in The New York Times and exhorts the reader to “Listen to Paul” (page xix); a brief prologue; two parts by Paul Kalanithi (Part I: In Perfect Health I Begin, and Part II: Cease Not till Death); and a stunning, heart-breaking epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi. In the epilogue, written with as many literary references and allusions as her husband’s writing includes, Lucy provides the reader with a gentle and loving portrait of her husband in his final days, reaffirms his joy in their daughter Cady, and chronicles how she kept her promise to her dying husband to shepherd his manuscript into print.

The bulk of the book is memoir – a childhood in Arizona and an aversion to pursuing a life in medicine due to his hard-working cardiologist-father, experiences at Stanford which eventually led him to reverse his decision to avoid a medical career, the stages of his medical career and caring for patients, and his devastating cancer. Though initially responsive to treatment—and indeed, the treatment enables him to complete his residency and decide to father a child with Lucy—the cancer is, as prognosticated from the diagnosis, fatal.

What makes this memoir so much more than an exercise in memory and a tribute to the herculean effort to write while sapped by cancer and its treatment, are the philosophical turns, the clear love of words and literature, and the poignancy of the writing. He begins reading fiction and nonfiction again: “I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language…I needed words to go forward.” (pp 148-9) Paul’s writing ends with what is arguably some of the most poetic prose ever written. He concludes by speaking directly to his infant daughter: “When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” (p. 199)

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Summary:

A mother (termed Mother in the story) discovers a blood clot in her young son's diaper and wonders "so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?" This discovery leads to a diagnosis of Wilms' tumor--a childhood malignancy of the kidney, and surgery to remove the diseased kidney.The parents are thrust into a new world--the world of pediatric oncology ("peed onk") and meet the Surgeon, the Oncologist, and the other anxious parents waiting in the Tiny Tim Lounge of the pediatric ward. Everyone is named by their relationship to the Mother or by their profession--Baby, Husband, Anesthesiologist.The reader is privy to the inner thoughts of the Mother--her anger, denial, protective instincts and dark ironic vision. The Mother is also a writer and advised to take notes of this odyssey in case they need money to pay the medical costs. She feels alien to the culture of the pediatric ward--only her artsy friends understand her hell. Notes one (Green Hair) "Everyone's so friendly here. Is there someone in this place who isn't doing all this airy, scripted optimism--or are people like that the only people here?"When the Mother is given the option of no post-operative chemotherapy for Baby, the Mother grabs the chance to leave the hospital, clutching Baby, and says "I never want to see any of these people again." The piece ends on the rhetorical and ironic question--where's the money for these notes, for the story?

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Pathology of Colours

Abse, Dannie

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

In this haunting poem, Abse compares the colors found around us to colors found in illness and death. The poem begins prettily, "I know the color rose, and it is lovely," an image which is immediately juxtaposed with a tumor ripening into the same color. Similarly in the same quatrain, another image of nature, "healing greens", is compared with "limbs that fester" of the same color. To emphasize the tension of the similarity and difference, Abse ends the two lines with the same word. However, the nature image is "so springlike," while the illness image is "not springlike."By the second quatrain, the images become more grotesque and frightening, as the colors of "the plum-skin face of a suicide" and the "china white" eyes or figure of a car accident victim are described. In the following quatrain, the tensions mount, as "the criminal, multi-coloured flash / of an H-bomb" is described as "beautiful" and compared to the stunning and glorious image of the mesentery dissected during an autopsy: "cathedral windows never opened."The poem closes with the rainbow, seen not only in the sky, but also in "the bevelled edge of a sunlit mirror," as well as in the striped "soldier's ribbon on a tunic tacked." Life and death, nature and pathology, health and illness are hence all united by common colors; colors which are reflected in that "sunlit mirror."

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Matthew McCarthy begins his memoir of medicine internship year at Columbia University with a glimpse into his first rotation, surgery, as a Harvard medical student. He had exhibited a talent for surgery and liked it – an affinity compatible with his dexterity as a minor league baseball player and sense of team spirit. The reader meets some of McCarthy’s memorable mentors, and, although he opts to not pursue surgery as a career, McCarthy’s eye for seeking productive apprenticeships with talented housestaff and faculty allow him to guide the reader through a year of drinking from the firehose, also known as internship. Medical training is full of liminal experiences, and internship is one the most powerful and transformative.  

McCarthy’s eagerness to do well, both by his patients and by his medical colleagues and team, and his candor with revealing his mental and bodily responses to the stress and strain of the responsibilities of internship, make him an adept guide. For example, he has gulped an iced coffee and is churning at the bit to take care of a new admission on his first day of call in the cardiac care unit (CCU). His resident, called Baio in the book, tries to tell McCarthy to take it easy. But McCarthy notes, “Our orientation leaders, a peppy group of second- and third year residents, had instructed us to exude a demented degree of enthusiasm at all times, which wasn’t difficult now that my blood was more caffeine than hemoglobin.” (p 15) The previous chapter had ended with a cliffhanger – a patient life would be placed in danger because neophyte McCarthy misses the importance of a key clinical finding – what and how that plays out will wait until McCarthy guides us through the terror and exhilaration he feels as he begins his CCU rotation.  

McCarthy has a good sense of the ironic: the huge banner advertising the hospital reads “Amazing Things are Happening Here!” Indeed, not only for patients and families, but also for the many trainees and workers. We watch McCarthy successfully perform his first needle decompression of a pneumothorax; he is allowed to attempt it as he notes that he watched the video of the procedure. But unlike the video, he needs to readjust the needle several times and add on some additional tubing and water trap, which makes the scenario more true-to-life than a fictionalized ‘save.’ The author ends the chapter with congratulations from resident Baio: “Well done… Amazing things are indeed happening here.” (p 244) As McCarthy’s year continues, many things do happen, including an infected needle stick, telling bad news to a new widow, and developing a friendship with a longterm hospital patient waiting for a heart transplant.

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None of the Above

Gregorio, I.W.

Last Updated: Jul-16-2015
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In this young adult novel, Kristin Lattimer is a high school senior who seems to have everything – good looks, two best friends Vee and Faith, excellent athleticism especially in hurdles, a scholarship to State University, and a hunk of a boyfriend. She and her boyfriend are even voted Prom Queen and King. Kristin’s dad is a single parent, as her mother died of cervical cancer when Kristin was in 6th grade. Hence Kristin’s primary sources of knowledge of adolescent changes are her Aunt Carla and her peers, and she is able, at age 18 to chalk up her lack, not only of menstruation, but also of menarche to her running practice. But when she experiences painful and incomplete intercourse, she seeks the advice of a friend’s gynecologist.

 Dr. Johnson quickly diagnoses “androgen insensitivity syndrome” and explains that AIS is “a unique genetic syndrome that causes an intersex state – where a person looks outwardly like a female, but has some of the internal characteristics of a male.” (p. 37) The gynecologist then stumbles through further explanations and concludes, “Miss Lattimer, I think that you might be what some people call a hermaphrodite.” (p. 38) To the now stunned teen, the physician further explains karyotypes, hormone levels and the “better term” intersex. Since Kristin has undescended testes, the discussion includes possible cancer risk, and Kristin’s dad is called into the doctor’s office as well.

 The reader follows Kristin’s journey of discovery – meeting a ‘specialist,’ urologist Dr. Cheng, who provides the definitive diagnosis of AIS and explains that “chromosomal sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation are all separate concepts.” (p. 59) Issues of privacy, friendship, betrayal, sexuality, community, ostracism, social media, athletic rules vis-à-vis gender, and support groups are woven into the story and Kristin learns to cope with her new diagnosis and self-awareness.

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Summary:

Soldier Girls is an exhaustively researched, intimate report by a journalist of the lives and deployments of three women in the Indiana National Guard, who, through serving together in Afghanistan, become friends. Each of the women joined the Guard prior to 9/11/2001, mostly for economic reasons. Thorpe selected women who were vastly different in age and background.  Debbie Helton becomes a grandmother during deployment and has served in the guard for decades - she is eager to be deployed. Michelle Fischer (a pseudonym) is newly out of high school, has liberal political views and sees the Guard as a way to pay college tuition. Desma Brooks is a single mother of three with a fractured and unreliable support system. All three have alcohol and or drug dependency issues. Brooks and Helton are deployed a second time - to Iraq.

 As one of the women, Fischer, notes, the Bush wars were an ‘economic draft' (p. 374) The struggles to find adequate housing, reliable partners, good schools, decent jobs, and to avoid the morass of drug dealing, which particularly surround Fischer and Brooks, are paramount in their lives.   

The women bond not only due to their shared gender, but also due to their mutual sense of humor. For example, to distinguish her tent from the dozens of similar ones on the base in Afghanistan, Brooks orders 50 plastic pink flamingos to decorate the ‘lawn.'   

In Afghanistan, the women are part of the support troops, doing such jobs as fixing AK-47s for the Afghan National Army. Nonetheless, even there, they are in harm's way, with the potential for injury or death from mortars, buried bombs (landmines) and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In Iraq, Brooks is exposed to danger daily, as she drives an armored vehicle  usually in the navigation spot of a long convoy, third in line. She suffers traumatic brain injury after driving too close to and detonating a large IED.    

Thorpe weaves the three stories together of the women into a seamless whole. She chooses to follow the post-deployment lives of the women, and it is after demobilization that the heartaches truly develop. For example, Helton, who had always been upbeat and extraordinarily generous with her nurturing, turns inward and suffers depression. Fischer finds it difficult to relate to anyone without a military background, yet feels alienated from veterans who continue with a gung-ho attitude. And Brooks's children, who felt abandoned by their mother, act out in different and difficult ways.   

Issues of military sexual trauma are introduced, though none of the main characters experiences MST. However, all are harassed, to varying degrees. Sexuality is a prominent theme, both heterosexual and homosexual. "Don't ask, don't tell" was the policy during their deployments. Partners during deployment are different than those at home, and infidelity is common on base, further dividing military from civilian life.   

A particularly poignant side-story is that of the translator, Abkar Khan, introduced on page 171: "He was movie-star handsome, with a square jaw, high cheekbones, chiseled lips, and an aquiline nose." Abkar accomplished what no amount of cultural sensitivity training might - he gave a face and voice to the people the troops had been sent to help: soldiers would later relate "that getting to know Abkar was the single greatest thing that would happen to them in Afghanistan - he was what gave meaning to their deployment". (p. 172) Abkar marries his first cousin in an arranged marriage, temporarily realizes his dream to work in the United States, then returns for a lucrative but dangerous job of translating in interrogations.   

Posttraumatic stress disorder, post deployment risky behavior, traumatic brain injury, and bone and joint injury due to maneuvers required while wearing heavy equipment and protective clothing are discussed. Despite the large numbers of sexual partners, no sexually transmitted diseases are discussed, but one minor character does get an abortion after a relationship with a superior officer (these relationships, though forbidden, seem common). As noted in the book, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan go far beyond the activities in the war theaters themselves, but continue on in the lives of the returned troops, and the families of all those who were deployed.       

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Self-portrait at 70

Willing, Victor

Last Updated: Apr-26-2012
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Summary:

Large blue circular eyes stare up from this frontal self-portrait. The sclera is visible underneath the eyes, which reflect the same washed blue of the background. This blue is as startling as, and reminiscent of, the green background of a Van Gogh self-portrait. The visage is grimly determined and the mouth a thin-lipped line. Ears are large and the shoulders blend into the background. He is thin and somewhat haggard.

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Blue Nights

Didion, Joan

Last Updated: Dec-22-2011
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, chronicled the overlap of two catastrophes: the critical illness of her adopted daughter Quintana Roo and the sudden death of her husband of forty years, John Dunne. Between the writing of that memoir and its publication in 2005, Quintana died at age 39. She had suffered a 20 month illness which started as a flu, advanced to pneumonia and sepsis, with intracranial hemorrhage and other complications necessitating 5 surgeries and extended intensive care unit stays. Blue Nights is a meditation on Quintana, and her mother's consuming sense of loss over the tragedy of her only child.

Blue nights refer to the quality of the light during evenings around summer solstice, a time of year which the author feels starts the whole cycle of diminishment and death. The memoir begins with a reminiscence of Quintana's wedding in July 2003 (the same year she falls ill and Dunne dies), as seen 7 years on by Didion. Throughout the description of the wedding are particulars of dress, flowers, design choices and locale which are not only precise, but also hold tremendous meaning to Didion. The branding of clothing, furniture, dishware, hotels etc, is dominant in many parts of the book - the Didion-Dunnes' family life was filled with movie stars, glamorous restaurants, and the hard work of writing. We see Didion on book tours and backstage during the Vanessa Redgrave one woman show of A Year of Magical Thinking.

Although Quintana's death and dying are prominent in the book, her whole life is explored. Issues of her adoption, her mental illness(es), her precociousness and talents, and above all, her relationship with her mother are intimately explored. The reader is given her childhood poems and descriptions of her nightmares and toys.

Another prominent theme is aging. The author was born in 1934, the same year, she notes, as Sophia Loren. Didion experiences neuromuscular problems and describes a particularly frightening episode of loss of consciousness and bleeding. She fears the deterioration of her cognitive abilities and laments she is unable to gain weight. She has a supportive and loving family and network of friends, but ultimately she ponders her aloneness, the lack of someone's name to write down on hospital forms as her emergency contact.  

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