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Survivors

Pratt, Arthur

Last Updated: Jul-19-2019
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

For much of the western world, the Ebola crisis came and went without much fanfare. Perhaps we were jolted by the initial news stories, taken aback by the images from affected areas, and slightly unnerved by the travel advisories as we entered security lines at the airport. But for the most part, the Ebola outbreak was an abstract crisis affecting people on the other side of the world, multiple continents away. The closest that most Americans came to Ebola was to hear in the news about the four diagnosed cases in Texas and New York City. It is safe to say that most of the world remains unaware of the depths of this crisis in the West African hotspot countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, New Guinea, and Nigeria.  

Arthur Pratt is a Sierra Leonian pastor and filmmaker, and he witnessed firsthand the invisible enemy that threatened to destroy his country, the communities, and the families that lived there. Despite the human cost that this disease extracted from the West African people, Pratt was inspired by how the people in Sierra Leone rose up to defend their country from a viral invasion that was attacking “the fabric of what it means to be African.” He felt it necessary to tell the world the story of Sierra Leone’s unsung heroes, and so he created a documentary titled Survivors, which focused on the work done by the ambulance drivers and nurses, interwoven with personal stories of children, mothers, fathers, and communities touched by the disease. Survivors gets up close and personal to the 21-month battle against Ebola in West Africa, and shows how the common people of Sierra Leone risked everything to come together and fight back against an existential threat.

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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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The Presentation on Egypt

Bordas, Camille

Last Updated: Jul-15-2019
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

‘It wasn’t his job to explain it over and over, to sit the families down and say, “The husband/the brother/the son you knew is no more, it’s only machines breathing for him now, and you wouldn’t be letting him go, because he’s already gone."’ These are the frustrated musings of Paul, a wearily disillusioned brain surgeon who struggles with the emotional aftermath of delivering grim prognoses to his patients’ families. After comforting a patient’s wife who has decided to remove her husband from life support, Paul hangs himself in his family’s laundry room, leaving neither a note nor trace of what compelled him to take his own life. 

Career burnout, perhaps even a nagging sense of futility, would seem to be among the issues behind Paul’s mysterious suicide—in one conversation with a patient, he alludes gnomically to bad dreams that leave him either flummoxed or exhausted. Whatever the cause, Paul’s death leaves gaping lacunae in the lives of his family—his wife, Anna, and daughter, Danielle—that they struggle to patch and, in their own ways, comprehend. It is Anna who finds Paul, hanging, in the laundry room, though ‘she didn’t scream. She didn’t believe what she saw…' In that moment of speechlessness, of disbelief, Anna devises a ‘cold plan’ to keep secret the true circumstances of Paul’s death. Concealing the truth from her daughter, Anna creates a scaffolding of lies, false impressions, garbled half-truths that shape both Danielle’s and her own perception of the past. 

Years later, in a moment of introspection, Danielle intuits, not likely for the first time, that her 'mother was lying about her father’s death. […] Anna insisted that the heart attack hadn’t woken him, but that didn’t make any sense to Danielle, who could be woken up by the smell of toast.’ Danielle dimly senses that her father had ‘woken up and suffered,’ but cannot grasp the facts that her mother withholds.

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I AM

Clare, John

Last Updated: Jun-24-2019
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

"I AM" is a poem by John Clare with three sestets in iambic pentameter with an ABABAB rhyming pattern unique to each sestet. In it the poet affirms his identity, his sorrows to date and ends with the expressed longing for a happier life in the presence of God and the solitude of Nature. Due to his disorderly life, unconcern for conventional spelling, and transcriptions of his poems by others, there are often multiple versions extant for an individual poem. This is true for "I AM", which Jonathan Bate, the author of a magisterial biography of the poet, states was written in a psychiatric institution about 1846. (1, page 505) For this annotation I have used what many consider to be the most authoritative edition of his poems. The poem also exists in several reliable sites on the internet.

The poet was a troubled man born near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England, in 1793, in meager circumstances and remaining so throughout his entire life. Save for a five month period in 1841, Clare spent the last 27 of his 71 years in psychiatric institutions. He wrote his poetry, which primarily celebrates the natural world he spent so much time in alone, before and during his hospitalizations. His reputation as a poet has burgeoned significantly in the last 100 years.


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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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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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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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The Great Believers

Makkai, Rebecca

Last Updated: May-26-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The subject of Rebecca Makkai's engaging book, The Great Believers is the AIDS epidemic. Her narrative unfolds in two eras separated by 40 years. It opens in the mid-1980s with the funeral of Nico, one of HIV’s first victims when the epidemic exploded in the gay community living in Chicago. In the second chapter, the time frame abruptly switches to 2015 and introduces Fiona Marcus, Nico’s sister. She was part of the gay scene in Chicago in the 1980s, grew attached to the men, and provided the care and comfort that many of the families were unable to offer when their sons were dying of AIDS.

In the earlier time period, Makkai's main protagonist is Yale Tishman, the director of development at an art gallery affiliated with a prominent unnamed university in the Chicago area. He is working with a small group of colleagues, including a young man uncertain of his gender identity, to acquire a batch of paintings from Nora Marcus Lerner. She is an elderly woman who happens to be Fiona and Nico’s aunt. and who was part of the avant-garde social circle surrounding the modern artists living in Paris in the wake of the First World War. As Nora reaches the end of her long life, she desperately wants to preserve the artistic memory of her lover who died as a young man. As Yale works to finalize the acquisition, his relationship with his lover, Charlie, falters and triggers a series of untimely deaths in Yale’s close circle of friends. Ultimately, Yale also succumbs to the HIV virus.

In 2015, Fiona has engaged a private investigator to locate her estranged daughter, Claire, who is living in Paris and has rebuffed numerous efforts in the past to reconnect with her mother. Ultimately, Fiona is able to move past the intensity of her caregiving role to gay men in the 1980s and to reconnect and reestablish a tentative relationship with her daughter. There is hope that with a renewed bond with her daughter she can restore a reason to live that will be as strong as the work she did to support and sustain her gay friends through the agonies of AIDS.

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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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