Showing 11 - 20 of 27 annotations associated with Selzer, Richard
Selzer begins by describing an anonymous painting of Vesalius at the dissecting table, about to cut into the cadaver in front of him, yet glancing over his shoulder at a crucifix on the wall behind him. He then tells two medical stories in which spirituality has played a crucial role.
In the first, a man who has repeatedly refused to have a brain cancer operated on turns up one day healed, attributing it to the holy water a family member brought back from Lourdes. In the second, the Dalai Lama's personal physician does rounds in an American hospital and, using ancient techniques, diagnoses correctly, and in some detail, a case of congenital heart disease.
Fifteen selections--short stories, essays, and memoir--make up this collection. Two stories are notable: The Whistlers' Room and Atrium: October 2001 (see annotations). The title story is a translation and retelling of an obscure German tale published 75 years ago. Set in a military hospital in Germany during World War I, four soldiers share a common wound--throat injuries and laryngeal damage necessitating a tracheostomy for each man. This remarkable quartet of patients forges a fellowship of the maimed.
"Atrium: October 2001" describes the random meeting between a physician and a terminally ill teenager in the hospital atrium. The subject of death dominates their discussion. "Parable" chronicles an elderly doctor's efforts to comfort a dying man, and in the process, ease both their suffering.
Excerpts from Selzer's diary reveal much about the character of the author as well as the characters in his life. He also reminisces about growing up in Troy, New York. Approximately one-quarter of the book is devoted to Selzer's musings on works of art (sculpture and painting). Lighter fare includes a discussion of life behind the podium, a description of his home, and a new ending for A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Four soldiers with a similar wound--laryngeal damage after being shot in the throat--share a room in a German military hospital during World War I. Each of them has a tracheostomy tube, and they can only speak by covering the opening of the tube with a finger. Because every breath or laugh generates the sound of a little whistle, these men are dubbed "whistlers" and their hospital room is named after them. The injured soldiers are Pointner, Kollin, Benjamin, and an 18-year-old English prisoner of war, Harry Flint. They undergo a series of painful surgeries (without anesthesia) to dilate the narrowed and scarred air passage.
The surgeon, Dr. Quint, is a compassionate man with incredible physical strength. He holds the "whistlers" in high regard. They in turn venerate the devoted surgeon. Pointner and Kollin die. Surgery on Benjamin and Harry is successful and their tracheostomy tubes are removed. They can now breathe normally and soon discover their new voices.
While eating lunch in the hospital atrium, the retired doctor who narrates this story notices a boy in a wheelchair looking at him. The elderly physician and the youngster begin a conversation. The fourteen-year-old boy is terminally ill with cancer. The doctor quickly determines that the lad only has time left for honesty. The boy lies, however, about his name. He calls himself Thomas Fogarty but his real name is Tony. "What will you do on your last day on earth?" the moribund boy asks the narrator.
The doctor shares with Tony his own fantasy about dying. He envisions a former student who is now a great surgeon transporting him to an ancient forest. There he becomes part of the woods and keenly aware of the mystery of life. Soon his mind breaks with his body. Death is just "a painless transition."
Tony dies the next morning. He had dictated an unfinished letter to the doctor, and Tony's nurse delivers it to him. As a retired physician, the narrator has performed a valuable service by helping prepare the boy for death. As a writer, the narrator still hopes to save him. He has immortalized Tony by converting him into an enduring story.
A surgeon attending a medical meeting becomes bored and hires a prostitute. When he awakens next to her in bed the following morning, he first observes, then palpates a suspicious lump in the right breast of the sleeping woman. Although he informs her of the abnormality and the need for further evaluation and treatment, the surgeon cannot bring himself to divulge the possibility (or even likelihood) that the breast lump is malignant.
It is the prostitute who acknowledges (and eventually proclaims) that the lump might be cancer. She realizes that breast cancer might prove fatal to her livelihood as well as her life. The surgeon appears less upset by the diagnosis and potential suffering associated with it than the realization that both he and the tumor were rivals, "each feeding on her flesh" in a competition to consume the woman.
He pays the prostitute one hundred dollars for her services and cannot wait to exit the room. She offers him ten dollars for his consultation, but the surgeon refuses the fee with the excuse that he doesn't make house calls.
This is a collection of 23 stories, five of which take the form of "letters" in which an older physician (not surprisingly, a surgeon) gives advice to an imaginary young surgeon. However, every one of the stories "fits" as a tale that might be told in such a letter--assuming the author was a wise and gifted writer, in addition to being a surgeon.
The book begins with the gift of a physical diagnosis textbook on the occasion of the young doctor's graduation ("Textbook") and ends with a reflection on "your first autopsy" ("Remains"). Among the other stories are Imelda (see annotation), Brute (see annotation), Toenails (see annotation), Mercy (see annotation), "A Pint of Blood," "Witness," "The Virgin and the Petri Dish," and "Impostor."
Tom Fogarty is a sixteen-year-old boy who is introduced to both love and death in 1934. The object of his affection is Lily, the 14-year-old niece of a neighbor who lives across the street from Tom. Lily has tuberculosis and is waiting for a bed at the sanitarium where her parents are already being treated for the same disease. The relationship between the two adolescents is risky, passionate, forbidden, and ultimately transforming. Their romance is abruptly interrupted by Lily's death.
Tom's overwhelming grief over the loss of Lily coincides with torrential rain that cleans and nearly submerges the town of Troy, New York. Tom is further wounded when he fractures his clavicle during the flooding. His physician-father, a general practitioner, repairs Tom's injured collarbone but only time can mend the boy's broken heart.
In this collection Richard Selzer brings together 25 stories from his previous books, along with two new stories, Avalanche (see this database) and "Angel, Tuning a Lute." The unifying theme is the world of medicine and healing, which Selzer explores with a keen eye and compassionate heart. These stories are firmly grounded in the foibles, suffering, and exultation of the human body.
In the Introduction Selzer sketches the path by which he became a surgeon-writer and he indicates the origin of some of the stories. Particularly interesting are the stories that do homage to literary and historical figures; for example, "Poe's Light-house," which grew out of a fragment Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his last delirium, and "The Black Swan," a re-writing of a Thomas Mann novella (Mann's The Black Swan is annotated in this database).
Likewise, the story of how "Avalanche" was written is an interesting tale in itself. Selzer's description of pruning the story from his journal reminds me of Michelangelo's comment that the sculpture already exists in the block of marble. The sculptor merely removes the unnecessary stone. The Doctor Stories contains many of Selzer's tales that have become part of the Literature and Medicine canon; these include, for example, "Tube Feeding," "Sarcophagus," Imelda, Mercy, Brute, and Four Appointments with the Discus Thrower. (See this database for annotations of the latter four.)
The story begins with the doctor-narrator unobtrusively observing an older man lying in a hospital bed. The patient is blind and has amputations of both legs. (We are given no medical details that cannot be observed in the room.) The narrator tends to the man's amputation wounds and answers a few simple questions. The man requests a pair of shoes.
Back in the corridor, a nurse tells the doctor that the patient refuses his food, throwing his china plate against the wall of his room. The narrator hears the man and a nurse argue briefly about food and then, by himself, watches as the patient carefully and powerfully throws another dish against the wall. The next day the doctor discovers that the patient has died.
Summary:A physician recounts an experience he had assisting an American plastic surgeon as he performed charity surgery in Honduras. One young woman, Imelda, dies of malignant hyperthermia prior to surgical repair of her cleft lip. After her death, the surgeon returns to the patient to finish the surgery. The narrator tries to imagine the surgeon's motivation for this act, as well as the family's reaction to it.