Victoria Sweet

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


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.

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This book describes San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, where Victoria Sweet worked as a doctor for 20 years. In the tradition of the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris (literally “God’s Hotel”), Laguna Honda cares for the sickest and poorest patients, many staying there indefinitely because there is no alternative for them. Sweet learns from her long experience at Laguna Honda that “Slow Medicine” has benefits, that a holistic or unified view of patients works best, and that the reductionism and specialization of modern medicine has limitations and costs. During these years Sweet becomes fascinated by the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen and earns a Ph.D. focusing on medieval medicine. At the same time (and increasingly) various forces—economic, legal, political, bureaucratic—cause many changes at Laguna Honda, mostly contrary to Sweet’s vision of medicine.

            Part history, part memoir, part social criticism, the book is informative, entertaining, and important for its discussion of the care of our least-well-off citizens and for its perspectives on modern, Western medicine.         

            There are three intertwining strands to this engaging book: Sweet’s medical evolution as a physician, the changes in Laguna Honda, and her investigations of Hildegard of Bingen and other spiritual matters.

            Sweet joins up with Laguna Honda initially for only two months, but she finds the hospital and her work there so fascinating that she stays for 20 years. As an almshouse, Laguna Honda takes care of indigent patients, most with complicated medical conditions, including mental illness and dependencies on alcohol and/or drugs. Many of these cases come from the County Hospital with continuing (but not carefully reviewed) drug treatments. Every 15 or 20 pages, Sweet describes the dilemmas of a particular patient, and her medical (and personal) attention to that patient. The cases are vivid and instructive.

   Clearly Laguna Honda is a major figure on the book; we can even consider it (or “her”) a beloved character and a teacher to the young Dr. Sweet, who learns three principles from her work there: hospitality, community, and charity. 

Because Laguna Honda is old-fashioned in many ways, Sweet reads her own X-rays, goes the to lab to see results, and spends large amounts of time with each patient. Laguna Honda has an aviary, a farm with barnyard, and a solarium; such features help to heal the whole person. While respectful of modern medicine, Sweet slowly learns that a careful review of a patient through Slow Medicine is more accurate and more cost-efficient than standard, reductionist, high-tech medicine. She comes to respect approaches from “premodern” medicine, including that of Hippocrates and Hildegard.

  The second strand is the evolution of Laguna Honda itself. Sweet describes a variety of pressures: the recommendations of consulting firms, rulings from the Department of Justice, a lawsuit, financial difficulties (including fiscal mismanagement), administrators focused on a narrow concept of efficiency, a utilization review board, forms and more forms, and a pervasive sense that modern (including Evidence Based Medicine) is always good. All these and more create a “relentless pressure squeezing the hospital’s Old Medicine into the New Health Care” (p. 322). Sweet demonstrates that her Slow Medicine can actually save money in the long run. Confident that her way is better, she proposes an “ecomedicine unit” that she would match against the modern, “efficient” units in a two-year experiment. (For more information on her concept of ecomedicine proposal, see

            As the hospital is “modernized,” many important features of the old place are gone and many “new and improved” aspects don’t work. Somehow there are no rooms for physicians in the new building while there is plenty of space for administrators and managers. A sophisticated computer system doesn’t work. Sweet doesn’t say “I told you so” directly, but we get the picture.

            The third strand is Sweet’s investigations of spirituality and pilgrimage. She is fascinated by Hildegard’s notions of the healing power of nature, the ability of the body to heal itself, and wholeness as an aim for a person and for a community. Sweet attends a Swiss conference on Hildegard. She hikes the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela in four installments and considers notions of pilgrimage. She feels called to pursue her ecomedicine project and to write this book.           

            By the end of the book, both Sweet and Laguna Honda have changed and are now headed in different directions. 

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