Showing 1 - 10 of 194 annotations tagged with the keyword "Medical Research"

The River of Consciousness

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Two weeks before his death in 2015, Sacks oversaw this collection of essays and charged Kate Edgar, Daniel Frank, and Bill Hayes to arrange its publication. The essays touch on various fields—evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and focus on major figures such as Darwin, Freud, and William James. The major theme—as indicated by the volume’s title—is how minds (of humans, chimps, even jellyfish) interpret and remember what the senses perceive in normal and in limited states. While we read in the Foreword that “a number” of the pieces originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, there are no citations for dates and places.  

“Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers”: Sacks describes Darwin’s research with flowers that support evolution; flowing plants display qualities of sensitivity to “contact, pressure moisture, chemical gradients, etc” (p. 19). Sacks recalls the pleasures of investigating flowers as a youth in his London garden.  

“Speed” : Drawing on personal experience and a wide variety of anecdotes (including his encephalitic patients described in Awakenings), Sacks muses about mental perceptions, slow and fast, normal and drug-enhanced, dreams, and our ability to imagine “all speeds, all time” (p. 59).  

“Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms”: Starting with Darwin and coming forward, Sacks discuss how worms, jellyfish, and even trees may be considered to exhibit “mind.” Near the end, we read, “if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of a significant and individual sort, one has to allow it for an octopus too” (p. 76).  
   
“The Other Road: Freud as Neurologist”: The opening paragraph ably sums up the essay. “Everyone knows Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, but relatively few know about the twenty years (from 1876 to 1896) when he was primarily a neurologist and anatomist; Freud himself rarely referred to them in later life. Yet his neurological life was the precursor to his psychoanalytic one, and perhaps an essential key to it (p. 79).   
   
The next three may be considered as a group because they deal with lapses or outright failures in perception, memory, or health. Because Sacks reports on his own life experience, these are the most personal.
“The Fallibility of Memory” describes Sacks’s memories of the bombing of London in the winter of 1940-41. It turns out that one memory, according to family members, is right, but the other is actually a version of a letter describing a bombing.

The essay continues to discuss such topics as false memories, auto-plagiarism, unconscious plagiarism, and fabulation. He concludes, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine” (p. 121). In a short piece, “Mishearings,” Sacks reports how his increasing deafness makes new (and sometimes hilarious) perceptions of spoken words.  

Surely the last written—and in many ways the most poignant—“A General Feeling of Disorder” discusses feelings of being ill. Sacks, at age 81, describes his metastatic liver cancer and, in detail, an arduous treatment. Although warned of weakness and pain, he writes of “a sort of negative orgasm of pain” and other disturbing side effects (pp. 155-59) in vivid detail.  

“The Creative Self” discusses forms of creativity including play, scholarship, unconscious borrowing, and subconscious insight. Sacks is less interested in a Freudian model than an evocation of “an entire hidden, creative self” (p. 144).            

The final two, “The River of Consciousness” and “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science” deal with theories of how the mind works and, more collectively, how scientific breakthroughs occur. The former essay explores cinematic models for perception in James and Bergson and much later models of the 100 billion neurons of the brain working on networks, coalitions, or populations. He finds that a specific mechanism is unlikely to be found and, “Even the highest powers of art—whether in film or theater, or literary narrative—can only convey the faintest intimation of what human consciousness is really like” (p. 174).

In “Scotoma” (or “memory hole”), he looks at discoveries that were over-looked for many years . Later they were rediscovered as important for understanding various phenomena: Tourette’s syndrome, phantom limbs, and, his specialty, migraines.

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So Much For That

Shriver, Lionel

Last Updated: Jan-18-2018
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The book opens with Shep Knacker packing his bags for his long-dreamed of “Afterlife”—his word for retirement—in Pemba, an island off the coast of Tanzania. He plans to take his wife, Glynis, and his high school aged son, Zach. This plan is not unexpected because Shep and Glynis have made many “research” trips during their 26-year marriage to find the right place (though never to Pemba). But, there were always reasons not to act on their research. An intervention was needed. Glynis is not home while he is packing because she is at some “appointment.” When she gets home, Shep informs her of his plans for the three of them to leave for Pemba, and he further informs Glynis that he’s going whether she comes or not. In response, she informs him that she has cancer—a bad one (mesothelioma); he unpacks, so much for that.

What unfurls from there is more complicated than just the challenges Glynis’s disease produces, though these are monumental challenges. Other people, too, are in need of Shep’s attention. His father’s decrepitude is advancing, his sister is on the brink of homelessness, and his teenage son is detaching from him and life in general. Shep eventually loses his job as an employee at the handyman company he once owned (“Knack of All Trades”) then sold to fund his Afterlife. There’s more. 

Shep's best friend, Jackson, who also worked with him at Knack of All Trades has two girls, and one of them has familial dysautonomia. This progressive genetic disease of the nervous system produces a constellation of medical problems that are bizarre, intense, and serious, before it ultimately produces a tragic end. The trauma and tragedy this disease inflicts in this story (and in life) encompass the entire family, in spite of the heroic efforts of Jackson’s wife, Carol. 
 
The many plot lines in this novel at times proceed independently of one another, and at other times intersect. They concern serious illness experiences and the effects they have on families and also how the American health care system can place burdens on those who need it. Nevertheless, the two families, beaten down by illness, fatigued from encounters with doctors and hospitals, and exasperated from fights with insurance companies, rally enough to make it to Pemba. The trip becomes financially affordable as the result of some narrative gimmickry involving a financial settlement of $800,000 from the company that put asbestos in equipment Glynis had used years before. They would spend the rest of their lives there, longer for some than for others.   

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Leonardo da Vinci

Isaacson, Walter

Last Updated: Jan-09-2018
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Leonardo da Vinci – the name alone evokes images of an artistic virtuoso, the Renaissance man, the mind behind the Mona Lisa. Though known best as an artist, his work extended beyond paintings into a myriad of disciplines, with notebook entries documenting his studies of optics, bird flight, comparative anatomy, hydraulics, and countless others. And yet what has been obscured by the shadow cast by his prolific career are the details of how a young man from a town called Vinci became Leonardo da Vinci. What did he do every day? What did he eat? Who were his friends? Did he even have any? We tend to immortalize Leonardo as a god, and yet he was human after all, not unlike the rest of us. This realization should encourage us to study one of history’s most celebrated humans, and see if we ourselves might be able unlock our own inner genius.

Walter Isaacson aids us in this study with his thoroughly researched biography of Leonardo da Vinci. He adds this to his growing portfolio of biographies of history’s great minds, including Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. In this most recent biography, Isaacson takes us through the life and times of Leonardo, highlighting milestones of his career, while also underscoring some of the seemingly trivial habits that were signatures of Leonardo’s personality and worldview.

Born of illegitimacy and openly gay, Leonardo was no stranger to defying convention. In fact, many of his grandest discoveries were a result of his willingness to challenge commonly accepted wisdom. Yet his greatest asset was his relentless curiosity and unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a recurring theme of Isaacson’s biography and of Leonardo’s life. Intertwined with this curiosity was his tendency to draw connections across disciplines, blurring the lines between art and science. Everything that Leonardo produced – whether his sketches of war machines, his treatises on anatomy, or his timeless portraits – was a manifestation of his desire for unifying knowledge.

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Dr. Monika Renz’s work with dying patients is unusual if not unique in the way she appropriates and applies insights from Jungian depth psychology, practices available in patients’ faith traditions, and musically guided meditation to invite and support the spiritual experiences that so often come, bidden or unbidden, near the end of life.  An experienced oncologist, Dr. Renz offers carefully amassed data to support her advocacy of focused practices of spiritual care as a dimension of palliative care, but is also quite comfortable with the fact that “neither the frequency nor the visible effects of experiences of the transcendent prove that such experience is an expression of grace” because “unverifiability is intrinsic to grace.”  Still, her long experience leads her to assert not only that “grace” can be a useful, practical, operative word for what professional caregivers may witness and mediate but also that affirmation and support of patients’ spiritual, religious, or transcendent experiences in the course of dying can amplify and multiply moments of grace, which manifest as sudden, deep peace in the very midst of pain, profound acceptance, openness to reconciliations, or significant awakenings from torpor that allow needed moments of closure with loved ones.  Describing herself as “an open-minded religious person and a practicing Christian,” she reminds readers that God is a loanword, whose basic form in Germanic was gaudam, a neutral participle.  Depending on the Indo-Germanic root, the word means “the called upon” or “the one sacrificed to . . . .”  Openness to the divine in both patients and caregivers, Dr. Renz argues, can and does make end-of-life care a shared journey of discovery and offer everyone involved a valuable reminder that medicine is practiced, always, at the threshold of mystery.

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video — Secondary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

The opening of the documentary Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement is meant to startle. A young woman (disabled performance artist Sue Austin) in a motorized wheelchair fitted with transparent plastic fins gracefully glides underwater around seascapes of coral and populations of tropical fish. The scene dislodges expectations about what wheelchairs can do and where they belong. It creates what for many are unlikely associations among disability, wonder, joy, freedom, and beauty. Watching Austin incites questions about what this languid and dreamy scene might have to do with human enhancement, which more predictably brings to mind dazzling mechanical, chemical, or genetic interventions that surpass the ordinariness of a wheelchair and extend human capacities. But this gentle scene opens the way for the film’s conversations about the ethics and meanings of human enhancement that emphasize perspectives by people with disabilities.  

Regan Brashear’s film features interviews with and footage of people living with disabilities as they move in varied ways through their environments—home, workplace, airport, therapy lab, city street. Photographs, news footage, and performances by mixed-ability dance companies complement their stories. We also hear from a transhumanist, academicians, and activists. Together they express a wider range of views about human enhancement than seems possible in an hour-long film.  

Often contrastive views are paired or clustered. For instance, double amputee Hugh Herr, Director of MIT’s Biomechtronics Group, brags that his carbon-fiber and other prosthetic legs will outperform the biological legs of aging peers. His lab develops robotic limbs controlled by biofeedback, and he intends to end disability through mechanical technologies. Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist and bioethics scholar who was born without legs, regards himself as a version of normal and rejects being fixed. “I’m happy the way I am!” he exuberantly proclaims. Rather than strive for normalcy through restorative technology, Wolbring urges acceptance of imperfection.  

Altogether, the interviewees raise questions about how to respond to differences among human bodies: focus on corrections toward achieving a concept of “normal”? accept diversity? extend human potential? The interviews call out underlying assumptions about disability that influence our answers. Do we assume that disability is an aberration that should be erased? A condition located in individual bodies? A condition brought about by unaccommodating social and built environments? Or, as disabled journalist John Hockenberry proposes, “a part of the human story”?

Fixed
also asks what the social and ethical consequences of pursuing enhancements might be. Do they equalize opportunity? Do they misplace priorities by channeling attention and resources away from basic health care and ordinary, essential technologies, such as reliable, affordable wheelchairs? Are biological, chemical, and mechanical enhancements indispensible opportunities to extend human experience, as transhumanist James Hughes claims? Do we have an ethical responsibility to enhance, whether to correct or extend?
                                                                                              
Hockenberry mentions that we already enhance. Think of eyeglasses, telescopes, hearing aids. People with disabilities, he points out, are typically the first adopters of technologies, such as computer-brain interfaces, that are destined for wider use. Archival film footage of warfare during this discussion reminds us what many of those uses have been. Should we worry, he asks, about using people with disabilities as research subjects? Or should we say with recently paralyzed Fernanda Castelo, who tests an exoskeleton that braces her body as it moves her forward: “Why not”?  

Considering whether we should trust technology to create equality or treat each other equally in the presence of our differences, disability rights attorney Silvia Yee poses the film’s most vital question: “Which is the world you want to live in?” While Fixed gives a fair hearing to disparate answers, the closing image is suggestive. A woman in a motorized wheelchair offers a lift to someone struggling to push a manual chair uphill. She invites him to grasp the back of hers and they roll forward together.

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: TV Program

Summary:

The Knick was inspired by the Knickerbocker Hospital, founded in Harlem in 1862 to serve the poor. In this 20-part TV series spread out over two seasons, the fictional Knick is somewhere in the lower half of Manhattan around 1900. The time covered during the series is not marked in any distinct way. The characters don’t age much, and although fashion and customs remain static during the series, the scope and significance of advancements that come into play were actually adopted over a longer time than the episodes cover.   

The series builds on some known history. The central character, the chief surgeon Dr. John Thackery, is modeled on a famous surgeon of the time, Dr. William Halsted, in both his surgical adventurism and in his drug addictions. The character Dr. Algernon Edwards, who is an African-American, Harvard-educated, and European-trained surgeon, is based in part on Dr. Louis T. Wright, who became the first African-American surgeon at Harlem Hospital during the first half of the 20th century.  

Storylines of human drama and folly run through the series. Among them are medical cases both ordinary and bizarre, heroic successes and catastrophic failures, loves won and lost, gilded lives and wretched existences, honor and corruption, racism and more racism. Within and around these storylines are the scientific, medical, and industrial advances of the period, as well as the social contexts that form fin de si
ècle hospital care and medical research in New York City.
 

Some of the industrial advances we see adopted by the hospital include electrification, telephone service, and electric-powered ambulances. We see that transitions to these new technologies are not without risks and catastrophes: patients and hospital staff are electrocuted, and when the ambulance batteries died -- a frequent occurrence-- many of the patients they carried died, too.

Medical advances integrated into various episodes include x-rays, electric-powered suction devices, and an inflatable balloon for intrauterine compression to stop bleeding. Thackery is a driven researcher taking on some of the big problems of the day, such as making blood transfusions safe, curing syphilis, and discovering the physiologic mechanisms of drug addiction. We see how he learns at the cost of his patients, or rather his subjects. We also glimpse movements directed at population health. For example, epidemiological methods are applied to find the source of a typhoid outbreak, which drew from the actual case of Mary Mallon (aka, Typhoid Mary). Shown juxtaposed to the advances epidemiology was then promising is the concurrent interest that was rising in eugenics and its broad application to control for unwanted groups. Research ethics and regulations were a long way off.


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This monograph is an important contribution—along with the Health Humanities Reader (2014)—to the burgeoning field of health humanities, a new academic field and the presumed replacement for (and expansion of) medical humanities. While the medical humanities included philosophy, literature, religion, and history, health humanities includes many more disciplines, and the creative arts.
This book is dense with theory and abstraction, but it imaginatively and intelligently promotes the notion that health is a larger and more useful concept than disease, which dominates and limits standard medicine. 

Five authors are listed for the book as a whole; none are attributed specifically to any of the eight chapters.
 
The first chapter “Health Humanities” promotes health humanities as an expansion of medical humanities to include more people (including unpaid caregivers and patients), social and national well-being, and the arts, such as dance, music, and visual art. We need to consider wider ranges of meaning, agency, and patients’ varying life stories. Unpaid caregivers have been neglected, even though “the majority of healthcare as it is practiced, is nonmedical” (p. 13). Medicine per se has been too science-based and too disease oriented, but critical theory and the arts can be “enabler[s] of health and well-being” (p. 19) with many applications to hospitals, clinics, homes, and neighborhoods.

“Anthropology and the Study of Culture” describes a wide range of inquiry, both worldwide and throughout human time, including rituals, conceptions of disease, health, death, and impacts for patients. Some cultures believe in spirit possession. The Chinese have worked with qi (life energy) for millennia. Cultural studies look at popular media, spiritual perspectives, also local and subcultural values.
 
“Applied Literature” discusses pathographies, including mental illness (for example, self-harm); it reviews concepts from Rita Charon and describes how reading groups can promote well-being. Literature expands our understanding of humans well beyond the biomedical gaze. Closely related, “Narrative and Applied Linguistics” reviews notions from Osler, Barthes, Bruner, Propp, Frank, and others. Patients want, beyond technical expertise, healthcare personnel who will help them co-create an enabling narrative. New techniques in linguistics include analysis of a corpus of usage, for example, teen language, thereby gaining approaches to young patients who cut themselves.

At 23 pages, the longest chapter is “Performing Arts and the Aesthetics of Health.” It posits that all arts are uniquely human because they are relational, aesthetic, and temporal (with time in a kairos sense, not just chronos). The arts fit into health practices, which also share the same three qualities. The arts promote coherence, agency, communication, expression, and social wellbeing, traits that are described specifically in music, dance, and drama. Similarly, the next chapter “Visual Art and Transformation,” promotes this particular art, whether elitist or popular, as communicative and transformative. The making of art can be healing. 

“Practice Based Evidence: Delivering Humanities into Healthcare” argues against Evidence Based Practice and its limitations. Instead of Randomized Controlled Trials, smaller, more qualitative studies may be more accurate and useful. Practice Based Evidence (and feminist and postmodern approaches) all create wider and deeper notions of validity.

“Creative Practice as Mutual Recovery” suggests that caregivers, whether professional or lay, also find healing as they deliver care.

In “Concluding Remarks” we read, again, that  “the majority of health care and the generation of health and well-being is non-medical” (p. 153). Medicine and medical humanities are “too narrow a bandwidth,” but health humanities can support all caregivers, various institutions (including schools), self-care, and complementary medicine.   

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The People in the Trees

Yanagihara, Hanya

Last Updated: Oct-10-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The novel takes the form of a memoir written from prison. The fictional author is Dr. Norton Perina who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering what caused some people on a remote Micronesian island to live for up to 250 years or longer. Dr. Ronald Kubodera, Perina’s long-time colleague, convinced him to write the memoir while he was in prison. Perina sent Kubodera a chapter at a time, which he would then “lightly edit” and add occasional footnotes to elaborate on a given section. 

Perina is in prison for being convicted on “two counts of sexual assault,” (p. 349) though we can believe he is guilty of many more counts. All of these transgressions involved children, many of whom were under his care as their adopted father. However, the bulk of the memoir is not about the behavior that lands him in prison. Instead, it tells of Perina’s successful scientific investigations of a hidden people in a secluded partition of an unknown island in Micronesia. He came to this place while stumbling around for a career direction after medical school, and then came to discover the hidden people when stumbling upon one lying on the forest floor.

Perina eventually linked the consumption of the meat of a particular turtle on this island to a prolongation of life measured in hundreds of years. Only the inhabitants who reached around 60 years were given the turtle meat and only during a ceremony to mark the milestone. While the bodies of these people remained as they were physically when they consumed the turtle meat, their minds did not. As they aged they became non compos mentis—“all they could do was jitter and babble and laugh at nothing, the neighing laughter of the brainless.” (p. 95) Perina’s published papers called attention to a possible fountain of youth and produced the expected rush among pharmaceutical companies to distill the turtle’s magic into a pill. All they managed to do instead was to destroy the island’s habitats,
corrupt its people, and hunt the turtles into extinction.
 

Very little is said in Perina’s memoir about any activities leading to his pedophilia conviction until the very end; however, occasional hints that Perina could be a pedophile appear before then. At one point in particular he describes an encounter with a 10-year old boy from the village that might have awakened any such tendencies that had been dormant. Another time he admits “some of the only comfort (and certainly the only amusement) I’d found had been with the village’s children.” (p. 267). During subsequent trips to the island over the next few decades, Perina adopted 43 island children and brought them home to raise as his own. He was drawn to children, but in not so innocent a manner. Only at the very end of book, and only in the postscript, do we get any details about how he preyed upon these children.

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Haematology

Swift, Graham

Last Updated: Aug-09-2016
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

On February 7, 1649 –one week after the execution by decapitation of Charles I, his royal physician, William Harvey (1578-1657), discoverer of the circulation of the blood, writes to his cousin, Edward Francis, a lawyer, once his friend but now firmly in the camp of Cromwell. Harvey muses on how his responsibilities as physician to the king must place him in the royalist camp. But as a doctor he will tend to anybody – Every Body—because all bodies are governed by the same natural laws. He wonders what his place will be in the new political order. And he wonders if his cousin noticed him when he stood by the king in battle – and if they will ever meet again in friendship.  

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The aim of these reflections on uncertainty in medicine is not to discredit evidence-based medicine or to incite suspicion of the careful and caring processes by which most clinicians arrive at the advice they give.  Rather it is to change conversations among practitioners and between them and their patients in such a way as to raise everyone’s tolerance for the inevitable ambiguities and uncertainties we live with.  If the public were more aware of the basic rules of mathematical probabilities, how statisticians understand the term “significance,” and of how much changes when one new variable is taken into account—when a new medication with multiple possible side-effects is added to the mix, for instance—they might, Hatch argues, be less inclined to insist on specific predictions.  He goes on to suggest that there is something to be gained from the challenge of living without the solid ground of assurances.  When we recognize the need to make decisions with incomplete information (a condition that seems, after all, to be our common lot) we may refocus on the moment we’re in and see its peculiar possibilities. Changing the conversation requires a critical look at medical education which, Hatch observes, “measures a certain type of knowledge essential to medical practice, but it consequently engenders a conception of medicine best described as overly certain . . . .” 

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