Showing 1 - 10 of 715 Nonfiction annotations

Summary:

Bodies of Truth gathers twenty-five essays about experiencing illnesses and disabilities from the perspectives of patients, healthcare professionals, and families. These personal stories join the growing company of narratives that reflect on the inner experience of illness or caring for the ill and on the social circumstances that influence those experiences. In addition to the diversity of perspectives, the editors have selected pieces about an exceptionally wide range of health conditions: multiple sclerosis, brain damage, deafness, drug addiction, Down syndrome, pain, cancer, infertility, depression, trauma, HIV, diabetes, food allergies, asthma. They also include essays on the death of a child and an attempted suicide.  

The essays resist easy categorization. In their Preface, the editors explain that they took “a more nuanced approach” to organizing the contributions loosely by themes so that they would “speak to each other as much as they speak to readers.” For example, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke’s spirited “Rendered Mute” calls out the OB-GYN who refused to remove his mask during delivery to allow this deaf mother-in-the-making to read his lips to exchange vital communications. Her essay is followed by Michael Bérubé’s “Jamie’s Place.” In it the father recounts the emotionally and logistically complicated path he and his son with Down syndrome navigate as they seek a place for him to live as independently as possible as an adult. This sequence invites readers to listen to two stories about disability from differing parental perspectives and circumstances. But perhaps readers can also to find commonalities in ways social attitudes toward disability fold themselves into the most intimate moments of the families’ lives.  

Several of the essays take readers into a professional caregiver’s medical and moral struggles. In “Confession” nurse Diane Kraynak writes sensitively about a newborn in intensive care who distressed her conscience. She was troubled by both the extensive medical interventions he was given “because we can” and their failure to save him. When Matthew S. Smith was an exhausted neurology resident, he ignored a stroke patient who inexplicably handed him a crumpled paper. Scribbled on it was a ragged, ungrammatical, and urgently expressive poem, which he read only years later, admonishing himself “to cherish the moments of practice” that could “change your life forever (“One Little Mind, Our Lie, Dr. Lie”). Madaline Harrison’s “Days of the Giants” recounts “the sometimes brutal initiation” of her early medical training decades ago. Narrating those struggles has led her to “compassion: for my patients, for myself as a young doctor, and for the students and residents coming behind me.” 

Overall, the essays range widely across medical encounters. After attending her husband’s death, Meredith Davies Hadaway (“Overtones”) became a Certified Music Practitioner who plays the harp to calm hospice patients. Dr. Taison Bell graciously thanks a pharmacist that he regards as a full partner in his treatment of patients (“A Tribute to the Pharmacist”). Tenley Lozano (“Submerged”), a Coast Guard veteran, was traumatized first by the various abuses of male supervisors, once nearly drowning, and then by her struggle to receive psychiatric care.  

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Summary:

A psychiatrist and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) specialist, Dr. Shaili Jain has written a book on PTSD and its many angles, from diagnosis to treatment to a larger perspective on cultural and historic influences on the development of traumatic stress. She weaves the story of her own family’s experience with the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, particularly its effect on her father and grandparents, as a way to consider the effect of trauma on family, but also how those traumas become ‘unspeakable.’  

A brief but effective introduction outlines the seven parts of the book:
1. Discovering Traumatic Stress: historical perspective and the changing language to describe the effects of trauma.
2. The Brain: the physiologic and psychological underpinnings of PTSD, including effects on memory formation and retrieval.
3. The Body:  such as addiction, cardiac effects and concerns at different stages of life.
4. Quality of Life: domestic and sexual violence, socioeconomic factors.
5. Treating Traumatic Stress: programs, treatment strategies and psychopharmacology.
6. Our World on Trauma: global health, large scale tragedy, terror and war.
7. A New Era: An Ounce of Prevention: resilience, accessibility of care including early and preventative care. 

Additionally, almost 100 pages of notes, glossary, resources and an index provide an easy way to further explore, to use the book to look up specific topics, and underscore the heavily researched nature of the text.   The book is eminently readable, with numerous, well-placed stories of patient encounters and particular experiences and manifestations of PTSD.  These stories are illustrative of the concepts Jain ably explains. However, they also provide an insider’s view of what happens in the consulting room.  In the prologue, Jain describes a young Afghanistan War veteran, who has been hospitalized after a violent outbreak at a birthday party: “Josh’s PTSD was fresh, florid, and untreated…. His earlier poise caves in to reality, and his face falls to anguish.” (p. xvi) We are in the room, listening to the patient, witnessing the tears of the medical student, glimpsing the attending psychiatrist’s response, and relating to Jain, as a psychiatry chief resident, as she understands that the individual before her, even as he shows classic signs of traumatic stress, remains an individual, a person in need of care.   

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The Scar is a powerful, thoughtful, and moving book, part memoir about the author’s illness across some 30 years, part history of depression and its treatment and part essay to evoke cultural and personal values about sickness, suffering, health, and death. Cregan, a gifted stylist herself, draws on literature that deals with human suffering, mortality, and wisdom.  She frankly describes her sorrows and hopes, the death of her baby, her attempts to kill herself, and her survival today with many blessings.   
           
The title refers to a scar on her neck, a result of her effort to cut her throat with a piece of glass so that she would die. This attempt, in a hospital, reflects the depth of her illness and the failure of her caregivers to prevent it. Her book explores the complexity and variety of mental patients and the range of medical responses—some useful, some not—to  treat them. Writing as a survivor, she draws on her journal, hospital records, emails, interviews, and more; she is part journalist, detective, archivist, and forensic pathologist—as if doing an autopsy on the suicide she attempted.
 
Ch. 1
What Happened describes the birth and immediate death of her daughter Anna and her descent into depression and initial hospitalization.

Ch. 2
What Happened Next discusses mental hospitals and her perceptions of being a patient in one. A dramatic paragraph describes her cutting her throat (p. 51).

Ch. 3
How to Save a Life presents electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), from the jarring images of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to her own experience of some 17 treatments; she reports that these helped in recovery.

Ch. 4
The Paradise of Bedlams gives a history of mental hospitals. She is hospitalized three months, “a prisoner,” in her term.

Ch. 5
Where Do the Dead Go? explores the dilemmas of the living as they mourn the deaths of people they love, including approaches from Judaism and Christianity. Mary has nightmares about her lost baby. She discusses Freud, Rilke, T. S. Eliot and others. She buries Anna’s ashes.

Ch. 6
Early Blues discusses modern attempts of science and the pharmaceutical industry to create drugs for mental illnesses, with influences from psychodynamic and biological concepts.

Ch. 7
The Promise of Prozac discusses that famous (notorious?) drug; she takes it on and off while working on her PhD, then other drugs as they became available.

Ch. 8
No Feeling Is Final sums up many themes.  She’s in her late 30s, remarried, and trying to conceive. After IVF, she’s pregnant. Baby Luke is born. She understands that the scar on her neck has an analogue with Odysseus’ scar on his leg: a symbol of survival through hard, even desperate times, for her a “double trauma: the loss of my child, the loss of myself”  (p. 243).  

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Summary:

The subtitle of this collection explicitly states its purpose and implies its audience. The content includes essays on teaching, as well as a number of canonical stories taught in medical humanities courses. The first section consists of key texts that present a rationale for teaching narrative literature to medical and other health professions students. This is followed by five sections, each of which covers an aspect of that rationale, i.e. narrative exploration of  professional boundaries, empathy and respect, authority and duty, stigma, and truth-telling and communication.  

Within each section, several essays describe teaching considerations or techniques, often focusing on a specific story or novel. For example, in “A Novel Approach to Narrative Based Professionalism: The Literature Classroom in Medical Education” by Pamela Schaff and Erika Wright (p. 72), the authors describe how Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration stimulates discussion of doctor-patient antipathy, doctor-patient intimacy, and interprofessional communication. From Reading to Healing also includes the full text of many stories relevant to the essays; for example, “Toenails” (Richard Selzer),“The Most Beautiful Woman in Town” (Charles Bukowski), “The Speckled Rash” (Mikhail Bulgakov), “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (Leo Tolstoy), “The Use of Force” (William Carlos Williams) and “The Birthmark” (Nathaniel Hawthorne). 
 

In addition to stories and novels, From Reading to Healing presents essays on teaching with film, religious literature, and even comics, cf. “Assisting Students in the Creation of a Class Oath Using Comics,” by Michael Redinger, Cheryl Dickson, and Elizabeth Lorbeer (p. 217)

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Summary:

Thomas De Quincey was a British writer—essayist, mostly—during the first half of the nineteenth century. He is best known for writing about his personal experiences with opium, which appeared in two sequential issues of London Magazine in 1921, and then published as this book in 1822. He would later write a sequel, and later still a more elaborated version of the original.  

De Quincey’s first encounter with opium was in 1804 when he was eighteen years old. Opium was freely available then and was often consumed for recreational purposes. De Quincey was not seeking it for pleasure, at first. Based on a friend’s recommendation, after suffering excruciating facial and head pain for twenty days, he tried opium to relieve the pain. De Quincey acquired opium in the form of an elixir (laudanum) from a local druggist (“unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!”) (p. 43). The book covers the subsequent eighteen years of his opium use, though he would use it until the end of his life at age seventy-four. 

De Quincey refers to opium as the “dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain” (p. 42). The book is organized accordingly. After describing his early years of straitened circumstances including near starvation, he divides the book into sections on “the pleasures of opium,” and “the pains of opium.” 
 

De Quincey found the pleasures of opium with his first dose in 1804, pleasures that extended past the pain relief it provided.

But I took it: – and in an hour, oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes: – this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me – in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. (p. 44)

For more of these pleasures, De Quincey drank laudanum over the next ten years at a frequency he describes variously as “occasionally,” “at intervals,” and “seldom…more than once in three weeks: this was usually on a Tuesday or a Saturday night.” He learned that some time was needed between “several acts of indulgence in order to renew the pleasurable sensations,” a property of opioids pharmacologists would later call tolerance (pp. 8-9).

De Quincey eventually became familiar with the pains of opium when the return of severe intestinal pains he suffered in his “boyish days” made it necessary that his laudanum use become “an article of daily diet,” (p. 9) because he “could no longer resist,” and “could not have done otherwise” (p. 59). The amount of opium De Quincey consumed as a result was enough to cause severe reactions when he tried to reduce his dose: “It is a state of unutterable irritation of the stomach… accompanied by intense perspirations, and feeling such as I shall not attempt to describe without more space at my command” (p. 71).

Though relieving pain was the initial reason for his daily diet of laudanum, for most of the next eight years, avoiding withdrawal reactions became the more important motivation for De Quincey’s laudanum intake: “it was solely by the tortures connected with the attempt to abjure it, that it kept its hold” (p. 86). He eventually knew he had to quit when he realized:  “I must die if I continued the opium: I determined, therefore, if that should be required, to die in throwing if off” (p. 87). Throwing off opium was not easy for De Quincey as he experienced “torments of a man passing out of one mode of existence into another,” (p. 88) but he claims he was ultimately successful.

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Annotated by:
Perkins, Sam

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

 In Strange Relation, Rachel Hadas, poet, teacher and classicist, recounts the years just short of a decade of her husband’s descent – retreat is the word she’d prefer – into dementia. Although no definitive diagnosis emerges for George’s “spooky condition,” frontotemporal dementia possibly with Alzheimer’s disease in the frontal lobe seems the most likely. By Hadas’s reckoning, George’s symptoms began when he was in his late fifties—relatively young for dementia. Diagnosing any form of early onset dementia is extremely difficult, especially if memory loss is not among the symptoms, as was the case with George. Hadas noticed the symptoms — his silences and growing remoteness— and ascribed them to her husband’s loss of interest in life and their marriage. She writes, “Slowly and insidiously your partner changes from the person you married into someone else.” 

The book opens in 2004, just before his diagnosis in 2005 at the age of 61. George Edwards was a successful and celebrated composer of symphonies, chamber works and art songs, as well as a professor of music at Columbia University. Through flash-backs, Hadas fills in a portrait of a happy, mutually supportive marriage of two engaged, successful artists, a life that slowly melted away as George’s disease tightened its grip. She ends with George in a long-term care residence in 2009, the year Strange Relation was published and two years before his death in 2011.  

The core of the book, intertwined with the story of George’s dementia, is Hadas’s account of the comfort she sought and gained from reading and writing prose and poetry. “This ordeal has eloquently reminded me of the sustaining power of literature,” she writes. “These gifts of the imagination,” gave her strength. “They are not sufficient, but they are damn well necessary.”

Over seven decades of reading have given Hadas a vast store of literary references to draw on. George is Mr. Dick from David Copperfield, mentally scattered, shuffling his papers; he is King Lear, losing clarity and dignity and consumed with anger and humiliation as he feels his abilities fade. Like Penelope awaiting Ulysses’ return, Hadas sees herself living with George as “neither wife nor widow,” her husband a physical presence but spiritually gone. When she reads James Merrill’s “Days of 1964,” she identifies with the poet who “has gone so long without loving that I hardly knew what I was thinking.” The poem speaks to her as it captures, “The thirst, the loneliness, the habituation to emotional deprivation that marked the way I was living.”

 A recurrent theme that many will relate to is the loneliness she feels caring for someone who, because of his condition, hardly speaks or expresses emotion. Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” reminds her how quickly friends will turn away from death and illness and “make their way back to life.” Sickness, says Flannery O’Connor, is a country “where there’s no company, where no one can follow.” She sees her life reflected in Philip Larkin’s wry poem about a couple’s estrangement, “Talking in Bed,” – the couple’s growing estrangement is “this unique distance from isolation.” Hadas finds the clarity and the company of these works a huge comfort.

There are moments of uplift, too. When her college-age son, Jonathan, and his friends propose to take George on a two-week getaway of very rustic living in Vermont, she reluctantly agrees, certain that disaster or injury will ensue. The reader is as relieved as Hadas is when all goes off without a hitch. 

A recurrent theme of the book is the importance of the language used to describe a disease and its treatment. Metaphors and similes, of course, are staples of medical caregiving – “they help us see freshly,” says Hadas; they help her step outside the moment and understand George, whom she describes as retreating into a “walled garden” or behind a “frosted window”; his disease is a bath in which he’s immersed and can never escape; it is a malignant fluid his brain is stewing in.

Equally, using the wrong metaphors and similes can cause pain and guilt. A neurologist tells Hadas that she’s feeling depressed because Hadas has moved into a “new house” and is still living out of boxes, still in transition. “Make yourself at home,” the doctor advises, “I don’t think you’ve completely moved in yet.” This only makes Hadas feel inadequate and guilty. “Let’s at least find the right kind of house,” she writes. Caring for a person with dementia, as she sees it, is not a house but a prison in which the family caregiver is the voluntary inmate, “responsible for the daily care of a warden who has mysteriously changed into a ward.” 

By the end of the memoir, George has declined to the point that Hadas can no longer care for him and has found him a residence, which raises a new host of concerns. He fails out of the first home and she finds another. She visits George regularly and experiences a new kind of tethered freedom. Her divided self, composed of the Drudge and the Poet, dusts off their apartment to reclaim it from the associations of George’s illness, hoping to rescue her memories of twenty years of happiness before his illness began to take him. “It became my home in a new and different way.”  

Each phase of her journey is accompanied by poems, twenty-nine in all, that Hadas wrote to understand herself, clarify her feelings, cope with the loss of George. Never was Robert Frost’s dictum regarding the ingredient of a successful poem— “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” —more pertinent. Along with her reading, Hadas’s poems lead her to insights that comforted and sometimes surprised her—and will do the same for the reader.   

The book ends with George’s birthday party in 2009 at the long-term care residence where he finally settled. He died shortly after the book was published in 2011.   




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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Maggie O’Farrell describes the book in a scene involving a casual conversation she has with her mother over tea.

As she lifts the pot to the table, she asks me what I’m working on at the moment, and, as I swallow my water, I tell her I’m trying to write a life, told only through near death experiences. She is silent for a moment, readjusting cosy, milk jug, cup handles. ‘Is it your life?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, a touch nervously. I have no idea how she’ll feel about this. ‘It’s not…it’s just…snatches of a life. A string of moments. Some chapters will be long. Others might be really short.’ (pp. 142-143)
This conversation is the only place in the book where O’Farrell describes her intentions in writing it. But, what O’Farrell describes to her mother is exactly what the book is, a memoir comprising seventeen “brushes with death,” as she calls these moments. There is no prologue, there are no interludes, there is no coda, just the seventeen stories.

Few people will experience any one of these events, and perhaps only O’Farrell has experienced all of the events she tells us about. She categorizes them based on the anatomy involved in a particular brush with death. For example, some of the chapter names are: “Lungs” (three times), “Neck” (twice), “Abdomen,” “Intestines,” “Cerebellum,” “Circulatory System,” “Whole Body.” The one exception is the chapter, “Daughter.”

Other ways of categorizing the near-death experiences O’Farrell covers could be based on whether they threatened O’Farrell herself or any of her children, whether they were the result of bad luck (e.g., illness) or bad judgment (e.g., near drowning), or whether the threat originated outside the body (e.g., accident) or within the body (e.g., illness, medical procedures). The brushes with death from outside the body involved violence (twice), decapitation (twice), drowning (three times), a plunging commercial airliner, and a knife throwing exhibition. From within her body, close calls involved encephalitis as a child, amoebic dysentery while traveling in a developing country, a Cesarean section gone awry, and a few missed miscarriages (i.e., when fetus dies but no signs or symptoms manifest and surgical procedures become necessary). A daughter was born with severe allergic conditions that caused the child misery pretty much all the time interspersed with episodes of life-threatening reactions. O’Farrell’s son was almost lost in one of her near drownings.

O’Farrell leaves it to the epigraph she placed at the beginning of the book to stitch together how these stories collectively reveal the possibility of the human spirit to get us through the most serious and persistent challenges to our being. For this epigraph, she takes a line from Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist who has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder.  The Collected Schizophrenias is a book of personal essays that was the 2016 winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. 

A precocious young person on a track to success, Wang experiences a manic episode at Yale that leads to her first hospitalization.  After a second hospitalization, her college washes its hands of her.  Hitting roadblocks time and time again requires her to rebuild her life over and over.  This is not a conventional chronological autobiography but rather essays that provide different approaches to the author’s experience of mental illness.  The plural “schizophrenias” of the title encompasses the whole schizophrenic spectrum of disorders.  As Wang explains, her own diagnosis is “the fucked-up offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia” (p. 10).  

In an essay entitled “High-Functioning” we learn how the author, having been a fashion editor, knows how to pass for normal: “My makeup routine is minimal and consistent.  I can dress and daub when psychotic and when not psychotic.  I do it with zeal when manic.  If I’m depressed, I skip everything but the lipstick.  If I skip the lipstick, that means I haven’t even made it to the bathroom mirror” (p.44).  

Later, in “The Choice of Children,” volunteering at a camp for bipolar children makes Wang think about what it would be like to inflict her diagnosis on her own offspring.  In “Reality, On-Screen” she attempts to convey the sensation of decompensating to psychosis.  And in “Yale Will Not Save You” she considers the failure of universities to accommodate mentally ill students. 

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Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Jolted awake by a ringing telephone, the narrator (assumed to be Mukherjee) listens to his mother give a tearful report of his 83-year-old father’s waning health. Telling her that he will book the next flight from New York to New Delhi, Mukherjee’s mother wavers, regretting that her call now spurs him to purchase expensive airfare. In a tone of knowing sarcasm, Mukherjee writes, “The frugality of her generation had congealed into frank superstition: if I caught a flight now, I might dare the disaster into being.” Arriving in “sweltering, smog-choked Delhi,” Mukherjee joins his mother in a hospital’s I.C.U. A physician himself, Mukherjee notes the facility’s piteously tumbledown conditions, its crumbling floors and exposed utilities, jibing that, if one were to trip on the concrete rubble, “a neurologist would be waiting conveniently for you around the corner.” No doubt accustomed to the comfortable amenities of American hospitals, Mukherjee magnifies the miserable disarray of the Delhi facility—a defective heartrate monitor, a fractured suction catheter, a hospital bed with cracked wheels, a delivery van used as an improvised ambulance. This world, far from New York, is mired in seemingly eternal disrepair: “Delhi had landed upside down. The city was broken. This hospital was broken. My father was broken.”

These would seem to be the smug observations of a dismayed tourist were it not for Mukherjee’s thoughts on the intricate and noiseless machinery of homeostasis, the cohesive force that sustains internal constancy. “There’s a glassy transparency to things around us that work,” he writes, “made visible only when the glass is cracked and fissured. […] To dwell inside a well-functioning machine is to be largely unaware of its functioning.” As Mukherjee witnesses the spiraling decline of his father’s health within a deteriorating, dismally ill-equipped healthcare system, he focuses on the regularities of equilibrium by juxtaposing the homeostasis of healthcare institutions and human bodies. Mukherjee relates a memorable story from his early career when he staffed nightshifts at an urban clinic, where his colleague, an older nurse, stacked oxygen masks, oiled oxygen valves, and arranged beds. He belittled the nurse’s exacting preparations as an “obsessive absurdity” but, when his first patient arrived with an asthma spasm, he realized how critical the clinic’s flawless order was to his life-saving efforts: “The knob of the oxygen turned effortlessly—who would have noticed that it had just been oiled?—and, when I reached for an I.V. line, a butterfly needle, just the right size and calibre, appeared exactly when I needed it so that I could keep my eyes trained on the thin purplish vein in the crook of the elbow.” Had these things not been prepared, had they not been finely tuned for use, had an instrument been misplaced, would Mukherjee’s patient have lived? He experienced an example of institutional homeostasis, conducive to optimum medical care, which facilitated essential processes to occur successfully without mishap.  

Now in the New Delhi hospital, Mukherjee notes that its medical staff has “to settle for a miserable equilibrium. Amid scraps and gaps and shortages, they had managed to stabilize [my father].” He arrives at another stark realization, “I had versed myself in the reasons that my father had ended up in the hospital. It took me longer to ask the opposite question: What had kept my father, for so long, from acute decline?” Recollecting his father’s life at home in between hospitalizations, Mukherjee references a different kind of homeostasis that helped to prolong his life. For example, when his father was unable to go to the local market to haggle for fish and cauliflower, the vendors came to his home for usual business— “The little rituals saved him. They […] restored his dignity, his need for constancy.” Mukherjee accentuates the protean workings of homeostasis, its variegated forms that sustain the patterns of normalcy that give regularity and meaning to human life—indeed, equilibrium is not only an infinitude of minute chemical and biological factors, but familiar ease in a world that one knows and loves. Equilibrium, however rigorously maintained, succumbs to decay. Mukherjee aptly quotes Philip Larkin’s poem, “The Old Fools”: “At death you break up: the bits that were you / Start speeding away from each other for ever / With no one to see.” Mukherjee notes that the experience of his father’s decline was not so much observing him disintegrate into a similar kind of molecular dust, as imaged in Larkin’s verse, as it was his solidity upheld by homeostatic forces, a steady chugging of biological gears that made intricate compromises to sustain his deteriorating body.

After his father emerges from the coma, Mukherjee enlists curious pedestrians to help lift him into a makeshift ambulance. His father’s jostled body resembles a “botched Indian knockoff of an ecstatic Bernini.” The thematic kernel of Mukherjee’s narrative, homeostasis, draws scrutiny not only to the experiences of individual bodies but the systems and institutions that heal them, to the material environments in which fragile bodies are cared for, repaired, and rehabilitated. “The hospitals that work, the ambulances that lift patients smoothly off the ground: we neglect the small revolutions that maintain these functions,” reflects Mukherjee, “but when things fall apart we are suddenly alert to the chasms left behind.”
 

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Summary:

This is a gripping, informative, and well-researched book about human blood. An accomplished journalist, Rose George, covers a variety of topics, largely in the U.S., Britain, and Canada but also in Nepal, India, and South Africa. She describes many current issues, provides historical background, and speculates on future technologies, such as replacement of blood by other fluids. There are nine sections:

 “My Pint”  While the book’s title refers to the author's volume of blood, this chapter’s title refers to a single pint she is donating. We read about blood supply (donated and stored blood) in the U.S. and—by contrast—in India.

“The Most Singular and Valuable Reptile” refers to the leech. This arresting chapter describes both historical and  modern uses of leeches to gather blood from humans. She visits a company called Biopharm in Wales where leeches are raised and prepared for shipment to medical clinics and hospitals.  

 “Janet and Percy” is a historical chapter focusing on Dame Janet Maria Vaughan, a central figure in creating the Blood Transfusion Service in England during WWII and Percy Oliver, who guided its predecessor, the London Blood Transfusion Service.  

“Blood Borne.”  This chapter describes Khayelitsha, South Africa, “the ugly backside of Cape Town” (p. 100): a place of poverty, crime, rape, sexual predation, and HIV. While rich nations provide assessment and treatment for people with HIV, poor nations have many citizens infected with the virus and, over time, rising rates of infection. 

 “The Yellow Stuff” describes the plasma portion of blood; it can be frozen (as FFP) and used as a filler for bleeding or trauma patients. Unlike blood—which can only be given without payment—plasma can be collected from paid donors. It is a largely traded commodity, part of a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Plasma carries Factor VIII, a crucial protein for clotting blood; hemophiliacs lack this and are at risk for death by bleeding externally or internally. Some plasma has been tainted, for example by HIV.

“Rotting Pickles.”  In Western Nepal (and other places), menstruation is taboo. George writes, “We are in a minority among species, and among mammals, to bleed every month.” She reviews historical views of women’s periods, mostly negative. Worldwide, there are many taboos, but also some educational efforts for public health that are helpful in impoverished areas.  

 “Nasty Cloths.” This tells the unusual story of an Indian man named Muruga, “a poorly educated workshop helper” who became a leader in creating sanitary protection for menstruating women. Worldwide, the feminine hygiene industry is some $23 billion. George also reviews related history, including Toxic Shock Syndrome from tampons.  

 “Code Red.” Bleeding is often a fatal factor in trauma, even with the best efforts to transfuse blood into the patient, unit after unit. George observes open chest techniques at a resuscitation. She reviews breakthroughs in blood typing, component therapy, and “buddy transfusions.”  

“Blood like Guinness: The Future.” George starts with images from the past: vampires, human drinkers of blood, past and, even, present. She interviews a purveyor of the concept that “young blood” is healthier than older blood. Can there be, discovered or created, blood substitutes that also save lives? 

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