Showing 1 - 10 of 207 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

Spy of the First Person

Shepard, Sam

Last Updated: Jan-30-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Spy of the First Person is a short semi-autobiographical narrative about a man with a debilitating condition.  He spends most of his time sitting in a wheelchair on his porch, goes for tests to the Arizona campus of the Mayo Clinic, and has a “handicapped sign hanging from the rearview mirror of his car” (p. 15). The man’s illness is unnamed, but we learn that his motor skills are grossly impaired: “His hands and arms don’t work much.  He uses his legs, his knees, his thighs, to bring his arms and hands to his face in order to be able to eat his cheese and crackers” (ibid).   

The story is told from various, shifting points of view.  At times we are in the head of the protagonist.  At other times, the perspective is that of a nosy neighbor who peers at the sick man through binoculars, hence the book’s title. There is a parallel narrative about an elderly couple and the wife’s gradual decline in health.  The Southwest plays such an important role here one might even say that it too is a character. 
 

There are also frequent shifts of tense.  It is not always clear whether we are in the past or present.  We alternate between the central character’s fantasies, memories, and observations. The effect of intertwining voices and tenses is reinforced by the brevity of the chapters, many no longer than a paragraph.  The overall impression is that while he may no longer have full control over his body, the man has retained an active (one might say overactive) mind.
 

Spy of the First Person
concludes as the man’s children take him to a Mexican restaurant.  The vivid description of a meal shared with his loved ones provides a sharp contrast to the inner thoughts that provide the bulk of this book.

View full annotation

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Victoria Sweet describes her training in medical school, residency, and work in various clinics and hospitals. From all of these she forms her own sense of what medical care should include: “Slow Medicine” that uses, ironically, the best aspects of today’s “Fast” medicine.   

Her dramatic “Introduction: Medicine Without a Soul” describes poor—even dangerous—care given to her elderly father at a hospital. An experienced physician, she calls Hospice and saves him from a “Death Express” the hospital has “quality-assured” (pp. 6, 8). 
 
The book continues with 16 chapters in chronological order. The first ten describe Sweet from a late ‘60s Stanford undergrad and “a sort of hippie” (p.14), next a learner of “facts” in preclinical studies at Harvard, plus the clinical rotations (including Psychiatry, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, and electives), then an internship as a doctor and her work in various clinics and hospitals. Throughout she’s collecting skills, concepts, even philosophies (Jung, feminism, Chinese chi, value of stories). She also describes particular patients important to her learning. She dislikes “just good enough” medicine at the VA (p. 95), “unapologetic budgetarianism” (p 141), medicine that is reductive and uncaring, and futile care for dying patients.  

Halfway through, we find an “Intermission: In which Fast Medicine and Slow Medicine Come Together.” With a year off, Sweet signs on as physician for a trekking group headed for Nepal. Unexpectedly, she treats an Englishman in the Himalayas. Returning home, she treats a man whose pulse is declining and rides a helicopter with him to a hospital. She realizes that she can take on the full responsibility of being a doctor, including when to use Fast medicine and when to use Slow.  

The following chapters deal with the 1980s emergence of AIDS, a hand injury to Sweet (she sees herself as “a wounded healer,” p. 182), her new understanding of medicine as “A Craft, A Science, and an Art” (Chapter 12) and conflicts between medical care and economics-driven medicine (“checked boxes,” administrators, quality assurance, even outright corruption).  She scorns use of the labels “health-care providers” and “health-care consumers” (p. 211) and discovers Hildegard of Bingen’s medieval vision of medicine. She works for 20 years at Laguna Honda, the topic of her earlier book God’s Hotel (2012). Chapter 16 closes the book with “A Slow Medicine Manifesto.”  

Sweet pays tribute to her teachers, both in a dedication to the book, and throughout the pages: professors, preceptors, nurses—especially a series of Irish Kathleens—and patients. There are some 20 case studies of patients throughout the book, their medical dilemmas, their personalities, and Sweet’s Slow Medicine that involves creating a healing relationship with them, finding the right path for treatment, even watching and waiting.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In this follow-up to his masterful memoir Do No Harm, British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh must deal with old age and retirement after nearly four decades as a doctor. Stepping down engenders mixed feelings, and he confesses to "longing to retire, to escape all the human misery that I have had to witness for so many years, and yet dreading my departure as well" (p17).

Marsh keeps busy by spending time in Nepal training young doctors and operating. He also makes visits to the Ukraine to perform surgery and teach. He has a fondness for creating things and purchases a fixer upper cottage that he struggles to repair. Marsh recounts previous neurosurgical cases, mostly patients with brain tumors. He remembers the distress at being sued by patients. He reveals his own admission to a psychiatric hospital as a young man. Regrets, both personal and professional, are confessed.

View full annotation

Eros and Illness

Morris, David

Last Updated: Oct-31-2017
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Several threads tie together this ambitious, beautifully digressive reflection on eros and logos in the experience of illness and the conduct of medicine and health care, which takes into account what a complex striation of cultural legacies, social and political pressures, and beliefs go into both.  Framing his reflections on the role of unknowing, altered states, inexplicable events, desire, hope, love, and mystery in illness and healing is a fragmented, poignant narrative of Morris’s own experience of watching his wife succumb to the ravages of early Alzheimer’s. 

Her disease is one that leads both professional and intimate caregivers to the same question:  what do you do when there’s nothing left for scientific medicine to do?  Conversations about palliative care are broadening, he points out, and medical education is making more room for the kind of reflection the arts invite and for spirituality as a dimension of illness experience and caregiving.  Guidance in such explorations can be found in ancient literature, especially in the archetypes provided by the Greek and Roman myths.  Morris makes astute and helpful use of his own considerable training in literary studies to provide examples of how eros and logos—complementary contraries—have been conceived and embodied in a somewhat polarized culture and how incomplete health care is when it doesn’t foster the capacity to dwell in and with unknowing, possibility, indeterminacy, and mystery.  Knowing the limits of scientific medicine may, paradoxically, make it better.  Certainly it can help keep our engagements with illness—always relational, always disruptive, most often to some degree bewildering—humane.




View full annotation

Summary:

This engaging memoir describes Pearson's medical training at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) on Galveston Island from 2009 to 2016. During these years her personal values become clear, and she finds fault in her training, in medicine as practiced in Texas, and even in her own errors in treating patients.

Having left a graduate writing program, Pearson took a "postbac," a year of pre-med courses in Portland, Oregon. She interviewed at medical schools "all over the country" and writes satirically about them; she concludes "nothing out of Texas felt quite right," having lived there and done her undergraduate work at University of Texas at Austin. She's a Spanish speaker with a working-class background. When her classmates provide the annual “white-trash”-themed party, she wonders, “do I go as myself?” (p. 21).

Pearson's education continues on three tracks: the formal UTMB courses in medicine, a simultaneous Ph.D. program at the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas, and her volunteer work at the St. Vincent's Student Run Free Clinic. The Ph.D. program is off-stage, not mentioned, but the St. Vincent's Clinic becomes pivotal to her development as a doctor and a moral person.

As for medical school, she finds the relentless "truths of biochemistry and anatomy" so reductive that the suffering of people and surrounding politics seem "not to matter at all" (p. 70). Among the politics are: the lack of safety nets for poor people, the use of uninsured (including prisoners) for students to practice on, failures to extend Medicare, pollution (notably from the oil industry), losses of charitable care, and income disparities that include crushing poverty for many. Something of a rebel, she writes that medical school "felt like junior high" (p. 44). She does enjoy the "clinical encounters" with real patients.

St. Vincent's, by contrast, was “a relief.” Her pages sparkle with her conversation with clinic patients, some homeless, all poor, and all suffering. She reports--confesses, she even says--her errors that had consequences for patients. She writes that errors are an unavoidable part of medical education, but that it's wrong that they should routinely happen to the poorest members of society.  

Chapter 8 discusses depression, which she felt after the second year. She writes about high rates of suicide among medical students and doctors; indeed a close friend killed himself during the "post-doc" year. Because some states require doctors to report psychiatric care, some doctors avoid such care. This consequence “drives a suicide-prone population away from the help we may need" (p.92).

The last two years are the rotations through specialties: surgery, dermatology, trauma, rural medicine, neurology, internal medicine, and so on. These are clearly and insightfully described. In one case (internal medicine), she allows the reader to see the irony of a doctor providing hair removal by laser, diet foods, and Botox treatment for wrinkles, “a pure luxury transaction” (p. 183).

Pearson describes the storms, hurricanes, and floods that hit Galveston Island, also the pollution from the oil industry that causes a “cancer belt” along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts (p. 104).
At last she finishes her program, understanding that her identity is simultaneously a person, a physician, and a writer (p. 248). 

View full annotation

Songs from the Black Chair

Barber, Charles

Last Updated: Sep-08-2017
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Subtitled "A Memoir of Mental Interiors," this book is both an exploration of self and a search for reasons that led to the suicide of the author's friend, Henry, when both were of college age. But there is more. As the memoir unfolds, we learn that since childhood, the author experienced episodes of inexplicable, preoccupying, repetitive thoughts and behavior patterns--much later diagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). And finally, Barber discusses being drawn to work with mentally retarded people in a group home, and the mentally ill homeless at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.Growing up in an intellectual New England family with a tradition of sending its sons to Andover (a prestigious prep school) and Harvard, Barber was expected to continue the tradition, and so he did. At Harvard, however, Barber found himself disintegrating into obsessive thinking, unable to concentrate, near suicidal. He withdrew from Harvard, went back to his small town, hung out with his friends Henry and Nick, washed dishes in a local restaurant, took courses at the local college. Obsessive thinking continued to torment him.In desperation, he dropped out of college again, quickly finding a position as a "childcare worker" in a local group home. The author believes this step was the turning point that led eventually to effective treatment of his OCD (psychotherapy and Prozac), completion of his education, a fulfilling "career" in mental health recovery, and a happy family life. He is currently an associate of the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health at Yale University School of Medicine.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Very early in this memoir, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar refers to an essay Sachin Jain and Christine Cassel published in JAMA (2010) that categorizes physicians as knights, knaves, or pawns. His take: “Knights are motivated by virtue…Knaves are selfish…Pawns are passive.” (p.7) Jauhar rides into medical practice as a knight in shining armor on a white horse after years and years of training. Would he be able to hang onto his knighthood?  

The book is divided into three parts—Ambition, Asperity, Adjustment—bookended by an introduction and epilogue. Jauhar’s disillusionment with American health care is his primary theme, and it connects these three parts:  

As a young adult I believed that the world was accommodating, that it would indulge my ambitions. In middle age, reality overwhelms that faith. You see the constraints and corruption. Your desires give way to pragmatism. The conviction that anything is possible is essentially gone. (pp. 5-6)  

Jauhar is comprehensive and unsparing in accounting for the sources of his disillusionment and his fall from knighthood. He was vulnerable to disillusionment from the start having been pushed by his parents in into medicine against his desires. His mother “wanted her children to become doctors so people would stand when we walked into the room,” (p. 21) and his father said that in medicine he “would have respect, wealth, and influence.” (p.133) He put off medical school for as long as he could by first getting a PhD in experimental physics. Finally, 19 years after first starting college he became a practicing cardiologist, though not without almost bailing out of medical school for a career in journalism as he writes in his first memoir, Intern (annotated here).  

Jauhar's first position was as a hospital staff member heading up a heart failure unit. As hospital staff he wasn’t paid as much as physicians in private practice. This differential wasn’t a problem by itself, but because the salary was insufficient for the lifestyle he sought and his wife—a physician also—urged him to provide, “I want nice things for us: a home, safe cars, good schools. They may seem trivial to you, but they are not to me.” (p. 75) This pressure was made worse by his older brother earning twice the income while working at the same hospital as an interventional cardiologist, and as well by all the other physicians in private practice who lived in big houses and drove fancy cars.  

The story then veers into a period when he sheds his knighthood for knavery. Jahaur joins a pharmaceutical company speaker bureau that supports a particular product and quits over his concern that the product may have been more toxic than first thought. Guided by his brother who says, “As much as we hate to admit it, patients are a commodity,” (p. 92) He takes positions with various private physician practices that operate more like procedure mills than health care providers.  

Jauhar does not do well as a knave, realizing “I had made a Faustian bargain. Having my eyes opened to the reality of contemporary medical practice had been painful. Now I had to make a choice. Continuing on this path was leading to ruin.” (p. 257) And so he tells of his adjustment, which for him is finding an “uneasy equilibrium” (p. 258) by continuing to work with private practices, just not as much, and spending more time with his family. Thus, in the end, Jauhar does not a return to full knighthood and becomes something closer to a knight with knavish tendencies or a knave with knight-like qualities.

View full annotation

Dying: A Memoir

Taylor, Cory

Last Updated: Aug-21-2017

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Australian writer Cory Taylor was diagnosed with untreatable melanoma at the age of 60.  In a few short weeks she wrote this memoir, exploring what she was feeling and what is missing in modern medical care of the dying.  She died at the age of 61, a few months after this book appeared in her native country.  

The book has three parts. Part I, Cold Feet, starts right off discussing a euthanasia drug purchased online from China. Taylor’s melanoma has metastasized to many parts of her body, including her brain. It was first diagnosed in 2005, a malignant mole behind her right knee. In the decade of her cancer, she has tried three drug trials, thought about suicide, and received palliative care. She has harsh words for doctors who don’t mention death, a psychologist who doesn’t help her “Adjustment disorder,” and medicine in general that sees death as a failure.      
       
Taylor feels anger, sadness, and loneliness. She finds comfort and camaraderie in a group called Exit, where there’s frank discussion about death. She writes, “We’re like the last survivors on a sinking ship, huddled together for warmth” (p. 14). She has neither religious training nor interest in it. She became a writer late in life, and now she sees a clear purpose for her “final book.” She writes, “I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others can see it clearly. And I am making it bearable for myself” (p. 31).  

Although scared and suffering, she is reluctant to commit suicide because of the impact on her husband, two sons, and friends. Dying, she writes, “is by far the hardest thing I have ever done, and I will be glad when it’s over” (p. 49).

Part II, Dust and Ashes, describes her earlier life with her mother and father. Her parents were unhappy together and eventually divorced. In her life review, Taylor searches for meaning in the influences on her life. Her family moved often in Australia, also to Fiji and Africa. She feels rootless herself, traveling to England and Japan. Both of her parents die with dementia; she was with neither one at their ends.  
   
Part III, Endings and Beginnings, goes further back to her childhood. She reflects on an idyllic time in Fiji, her discovery of the power of language and writing, and various trials of growing up. She worries that she wasn’t vigilant enough in checking her skin, thereby allowing her disease to become fatal. She feels autonomy in having the Chinese euthanasia drug, but her life is clearly closing in. She says she weighs less than her neighbor’s dog. The last page of the book imagines her death as a cinematic montage, ending with “Fade to black” (p. 141).  

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Redel-Traub, Gabriel

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In Dr. Elizabeth Ford’s Sometimes Amazing Things Happen, Ford recounts her time spent on the Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward. The memoir is as much about her own personal growth as it is about the daunting, yet crucial care she provides to one of the country’s most vulnerable populations, prison inmates from Riker’s Island. Dr. Ford goes from being a nervous intern on her first day working in the ward to a confident—if not emotionally drained—director of the forensic pathology service all the while trying to balance her family life as a wife and mother. Dr. Ford’s patient encounters with the inmates all center around one crucial thing: trust. In many of her conversations, Dr. Ford works tirelessly to convince her patients, many of whom had suffered abuse or neglect in their younger life, that she is on their team. This process is, more often than not, an uphill battle. Nonetheless, it is an endeavor we see Dr. Ford embark on repeatedly throughout the memoir. For as she says, “My job is to try to look past [what they’ve done] and ... to care for them, to be curious about them and to be non-judgmental. It is a daily struggle, but one that I have found over the years [to be] incredibly rewarding."

View full annotation

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Volck’s memoir describes his medical practice and learning in a variety of settings (Cleveland, Baltimore, Cincinnati), but, more importantly, in non-metropolitan places, such as Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and rural clinics in Honduras. He suggests that his knowledge of medicine has largely come as he has practiced it and not from his formal education. Further, he believes that best medical practice is not primarily high-tech, urban, or industrial. Each of the 15 chapters has a title—a topic, a person, or a theme—but also one or more locations specified. For example, we have “Chapter One, A Wedding, Navajo Nation, Northern Arizona,” suggesting the importance of culture and locale. Further, the chapters include personal associations from several realms beyond the topic and place as Volck seeks to understand medicine, healthcare, and how we live in the world.           

Of the first seven chapters, five are set in Navajo land, where Volck is an outsider by his cultural heritage and his profession, a doctor with a pediatrics specialty. From time to time he reflects on his training, the English verb “to attend,” and specific patients, such as two-year-old Alice in Tuba City and eight-year-old Brian in Cleveland. Both children died while in his care. Working on the front-line of medicine, he considers the weaknesses of our modern attitudes toward death and our wishes for control. He also wrestles with personal lifestyle issues of balancing medicine, family, and an urge to write.
 
           
Other chapters describe restlessness in his profession, the growth of his family (including the adoption of a Guatemalan baby girl), hiking in the Grand Canyon, camping in the rain, and a retreat with Benedictine monks. Chapter 11 “Embodying the Word” discusses literature and medicine, lectio divina (a Benedictine reading practice), and the need to listen carefully to patients’ stories.
           
The final chapter returns to Cincinnati, Honduras, and Tuba City. Volck has found more projects in the Navajo Nation, including a youth service project from his church. With permission, he conducts interviews and plans a book on the Navajo, “drawing on cultural history, anthropology, history, medicine, and politics” (p. 201).

View full annotation