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Histories

Guglani, Sam

Last Updated: Sep-18-2018
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

One British hospital. Seven days and nights. Plenty of perspectives from those who work there, train there, and are treated there. Over the course of one week (October 24 thru October 30), the characters in these connected stories spill their secrets and shame, tout their triumphs and tragedies. And the danger of professional and emotional exhaustion looms very large: "Maybe this is how doctors and nurses finally burn out. Past their failures, their hours, all their inhaled sadness" (p40). What ultimately triggers burnout is "the accrued weight of so many tiny things" (p41).

Readers are privy to the thoughts and sometimes nuanced actions of medical personnel - attending physicians, residents, a medical student, and nurses. The musings of a hospital chaplain, cleaning woman, medical secretary, hospital porter, and patients (a hairdresser and a farmer) are also divulged. But the protagonist is the hospital. More than a physical structure, it is a kind of human hive with many strata of workers, occupants, and those (MD's) at the top. The hospital is portrayed as "a place of brokenness," propped up with occasional promises of hope and the might of technology. But decay can be insidious as some physicians no longer appear capable of compassion or empathy.

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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Visual Arts /

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Devan Stahl’s opening essay in this unusual book explores the tension between her lived experience of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in her twenties and her physicians’ biomedical descriptions of it. While that tension is a familiar theme in patients’ narratives, Stahl’s approach is fresh and generously collaborative. Stahl, a bioethicist, focuses her brief narrative on her uneasy hours inside MRI machines and with clinicians who read the images. Stahl encouraged her sister, artist Darian Goldin Stahl, to transmute her physicians’ diagnostic tools into printmaker’s works, which bring personal meaning and sisterly solidarity to Devan’s experience. Devan then invited Darian and four humanities scholars to write reflective commentaries on her narrative, Darian’s images, and the commentaries themselves. The result is a richly layered, multi-vocal reflection on what Devan Stahl has accepted as “the dark gift of bodily frailty” (xxvii).

Darian Stahl’s prints were inspired by the drawings of Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius that the sisters admired. Unlike their modern counterparts, the older images placed bodies in humanly built and natural environments that are rich with metaphor and theological implications. Darian’s photographic silkscreened and stone lithographic prints, some of which accompany her essay, imaginatively relocate her sister’s MRI scans in domestic spaces that suggest both Devan’s present state: her spine captured in a glass kitchen jar. And her future: a ghostly figure (actually Darian’s) at the base of the staircase that Devan will someday have trouble climbing. Making art became an act of caregiving.

The scholarly essays affirm that a single diagnosis can set in motion processes of interpretation in the context of family, community, academic discipline, and culture. But in this context, they too are expressions of caring for Devan. Literary and health humanities scholar Therese Jones writes that Stahl’s narrative “testifies to [her] hope of transcending or at least managing the alienation and incoherence of a disrupted life” (49). Literature professor Kirsten Ostherr links the Stahls’ collaborative projects with the patient empowerment movement, where creative expression offers one way to resist “the technomediated patient narrative” (71). Two of Devan Stahl’s theological studies professors contribute the remaining essays. Ellen T. Armour believes that the Stahls’ projects suggest the value of engaging the medical humanities in pastoral practice and vice versa, especially to challenge biomedicine’s claims to mastery and its “disavowal of vulnerability” (89). Jeffrey P. Bishop, who is also a physician, understands a patient’s position within the asymmetric power of medicine. Yet he also resists “the power ontology that animates so much of the West” (102). He offers instead a vision of accepting “the dark gift” of the fragility of the body, which can be both humbling and liberating (105). Viewing one of Darian’s images, he writes, “calls me out of myself” (105).

In Devan Stahl’s final reflection on her colleagues’ commentaries and her sister’s art, she concludes that sharing her experience has revealed both a “power in submission” and her responsibility to other patients (112). Her discovery leads her to a “new image” of herself and acceptance of Bishop’s observation: “Flesh calls the self into question” (115, 103).

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

After a combined twelve years of medical training and working on hospital wards, this British physician leaves the medical profession. Using his diary written during a stint in the National Health Service (NHS) from 2004-2010, he recalls his experiences as a young doctor.

He describes the making of a doctor and a physician's life as "a difficult job in terms of hours, energy, and emotion" (p196) and recounts the overwhelming exhaustion and toll on his personal life. He chooses OB/GYN as his specialty partly because "I liked that in obstetrics you end up with twice the number of patients you started with, which is an unusually good batting average compared to other specialties" (p32). As for his bedside manner, "I went for a 'straight to the point' vibe - no nonsense, no small talk, let's deal with the matter in hand, a bit of sarcasm thrown into the mix" (p163).

Days are filled with doing prenatal visits, vaginal deliveries, caesarean sections, gynecologic surgeries, and lots of women's health issues. Night shifts are often hellacious as they "made Dante look like Disney" (p5). He must handle emergencies, break bad news, deal with intra-uterine deaths, and once gets sued for medical negligence. The anecdotes are sometimes tender and heart-tugging, other times wacky and gross. Consider this diary entry dated 12 March 2007: "a lump of placenta flew into my mouth during a manual removal and I had to go to occupational health about it" (p92).

The final diary entry chronicles a catastrophe. An undiagnosed placenta previa results in the delivery of a dead baby. The mother is hemorrhaging, requires an emergency hysterectomy, and is headed to the ICU. The author sits alone crying for one hour. For the next six months, he never laughs. He quits medicine and lands a job as a comedy writer and editor for television. Seriously.




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Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Summary:

What is an atlas? To most people, an atlas is a collection of maps constructed by cartographers who meticulously plot the surface of the earth, inch by inch. In the medical field, we use the word atlas to refer to textbooks of human anatomy, but the endeavor is much the same, and no less painstaking – the human body is quite complex, after all. Though some anatomy atlases are famous for their beautiful depictions of anatomical structures, it is more important that they are accurate. What good would a map be otherwise?  

Yet this quest for accuracy is founded on an inherent dishonesty. Anatomy atlases are supposed to be our guides to the human body, but in reality, they depict the anatomical structures of only a human body. Every person is different, and that goes for their underlying anatomy as well. That being said, these minor variations are fairly unimportant for learners at the novice level. At the same time, one can’t help but feel like these books have been stripped of the key element that defines what it means to be human.
 

It is fitting that an artist would be the one to bring light to this issue. Laura Ferguson, Artist-In-Residence in the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine (MSPHM) at the NYU School of Medicine, has lived nearly her whole life with scoliosis. She saw in her own story the tendency of clinicians to boil a person down to a diagnosis – normal or abnormal. For doctors, this categorization is often necessary. But the artist recognizes that a person is more than just the sum of their parts. Laura saw past the medicalization of her anatomy and cherished the beauty of her curved spine.  

Laura’s arrival at the medical school ushered in a renewed focus on the humanism of medicine, starting with the Art & Anatomy seminar she began in 2009, open to students, doctors, researchers, and all other staff members at NYU Langone Health. In the seminar, students spend 90 minutes a week undertaking illustrations of various anatomical specimens: bones, organs, and even cadavers in the anatomy lab.  

Now almost a decade into this project, Laura has showcased her students’ work in her recent book Art & Anatomy: Drawings, co-edited by Katie Grogan, Associate Director of the MSPHM. Unlike with other anatomy books, the goal for her students was never to be “accurate”; such a word has limited meaning in the world of art. Instead, Laura taught students to observe things that they had never taken the time to see before. Then, she encouraged them to draw what they saw, as they saw it. The result is the compilation of drawings into a different kind of atlas – an atlas of the mind, of creative spirit, and of humanistic expression.

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The Language of Kindness

Watson, Christie

Last Updated: Aug-21-2018
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Author Christie Watson begins her memoir with these words: "I didn't always want to be a nurse." Indeed, the first several pages of the introduction give witness to Christie's many interests, her career starts and stops, and a peek into what she names her "flightiness," including leaving school at age sixteen to move in with her older boyfriend and his four lodgers (page 5).  Then, still sixteen years old, she begins working with the "Spastics Society" helping to assist disabled adults.  This is the first time she sees nurses in action, and one of them offers Christie a suggestion: "You should do nursing. They give you a grant and somewhere to live" (page 6).  At age seventeen, the author enters nursing school--and like most nursing students, she is "terrified of failure." During her health screening blood draw, Christie faints; a nurse suggests she rethink her career.  But Christie persists, graduates, then spends twenty successful years in nursing.  This memoir--densely written, action packed--is her account of her work especially in the Special-Care baby Unit, in the medical ward, and in Accident and Emergency.  The author brings us as well into the cancer ward, pediatric ICU,  and the geriatric ward, painting vivid portraits of her patients and the many acts of kindness she offers them along the way.

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Taking Care of Time

Davis, Cortney

Last Updated: Aug-14-2018
Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

In this volume by the esteemed nurse-poet/writer, Cortney Davis, are 43 previously published poems (some revised for this collection), assembled in 3 sections-- the middle section featuring her long poem, "Becoming the Patient," that recounts through 10 shorter poems her time "in the hospital."

The poems in the surrounding sections describe in beautiful and intimate detail her patients' lives and the call to and practice of nursing. Featured throughout are battles won and lost-- with disease, with the medical staff, and as the title-- taking care of time-- suggests, the finitude we all face. No matter the difficulties of hospital life-- whether as practitioner or patient-- its familiarity  provides grounding and comfort in these poems as, for example, heard through the speaker of "First Night at the Cheap Hotel" who tells us:

"Being here is like being sick in a hospital ward
without the lovely, muffling glove of illness.
In hospital, I would be drowsy, drugged into a calm
that accepts the metal door's clang,
the heavy footfall right outside my door.
All these, proof of life,
and there would be a nurse too, holding my wrist,
counting and nodding, only a silhouette in the dark" (p.67)

And if sometimes the experiences and images become too hard to bear, the skillful nurse-poet can, as Cortney Davis does in "On-Call: Splenectomy," "tame them on page” (p.52).

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Annotated by:
Perkins, Sam

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Longform journalism

Summary:

Olivia Laing, a British novelist and writer on cultural and social issues, tackles the phenomenon of loneliness as a pervasive condition that is both a symptom and a cause of malaise, dysphoria and depression. The book is thoroughly referenced and has an extensive, useful bibliography. Laing begins by describing her own loneliness when she moved to New York City. Somewhat reclusive by nature, she spent hours in her apartment, connected to  the outside world through social media, email and Skype. This leads her to examine the nature of loneliness, its causes and impact on the individual. She then turns to the lives and works of artists who specifically dealt with their own loneliness -- as inspiration, subject matter and personal burden: Edward Hopper; Andy Warhol and his assailant Valerie Solanas; the artist and AIDS activist, David Wojnarowicz; outsider artist, Henry Darger; singers Klaus Nomi and Billie Holliday; tech entrepreneur, Josh Harris, and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Laing weaves in pertinent research (Klein, Harlow, Bowlby, Ainsworth, Weiss, Turkel) and expertly ties their findings to her subjects’ creative lives. Her section on Josh Harris’ radical social media experiments is a pertinent reminder of technology’s role in fostering loneliness. A recurrent theme is that social isolation “leads to a decline in social sophistication which itself leads to further episodes of rejection.” Among the results, she says, are that lonely people are more susceptible to sickness and more likely to die before their time.  


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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

When poet and writer Amy Nawrocki was nineteen years old, a college student returning home after her freshmen year, she suffered a sudden and mysterious illness.  She was transformed, in an eye-blink, from an active young woman to a bed bound and comatose patient.  "There is nothing to embellish--I got sick, I fell into a deep sleep, I woke up.  No fairy tale" (page 3).  Months of her life went missing: this brief and lovely memoir is her attempt to reconstruct those hours and those experiences.  She begins with reflections on journal entries written before her illness began, giving the reader (and herself) a persona, a personality, a living breathing young woman who already writes, who lives in her head, and who always felt "totally comfortable" in her body (page 3). Then we lose her, as she lost herself.  She re-visions the story of her months of suffering and recovering from encephalitic coma through the various medical records and family memories she gathers in order to reconstruct the missing pieces of her life. "The coma girl has detached herself from me. I have to dream her up or rely on what others saw, eye witnesses who had to detach themselves in a different way" (page 21). Coming back into life after a serious illness is a strange and often prolonged journey.  Nawrocki writes, "Waking up took as long as sleeping" (page 33).  And in this waking up time, she begins to see who she was (or how she looked to others) during those blank months. "The images still frighten me. My face was a mess; hair cropped short, puffed up without styling, ragged, like I just woke up. My eyes seemed empty but weirdly wild" (page 35). During her recovery, the author begins journaling again. "In my college notes, I focused on the art of reflection; after the illness, I wanted mainly to observe" (page 42).  And in recovery, she begins to build memories once again. She lists her recollections during weeks in rehab, and she remembers "the final trip home, a cake decorated with blue and yellow icing waiting for me" (page 45).

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The Anatomy Lesson

Siegal, Nina

Last Updated: Jul-31-2018
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In 1632, at the age of only 26, Rembrandt finished a large (85.2 in × 66.7 in) oil painting that was destined to become one of his best known works and certainly one of the linchpins in the nexus between the graphic arts and the medical humanities. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" depicts the dissection of the flexor tendons of the left arm of a cadaver by the eponymous doctor while an attentive audience of his peers, identifiable members of the medical and anatomical community of early 17th century Amsterdam, looks on. Nina Siegal's novel tells her imagined back story of this richly illustrated anatomy lesson which, once you read her captivating novel, will make you ask yourself, as I did, why no one has thought fit to do so heretofore.

Using multiple first person narrators, Siegal examines the characters (some historical, others wholly fictional) and events leading up to the anatomy lesson and Rembrandt's artistic rendering of it. Inventing a life for Aris Kindt (born Adriaen  Adriaenszoon), the historically real career criminal whose recently judicial hanging provides the body we see in the painting, Siegal provides him with Flora, a lover who is carrying his illegitimate child at the time of his public - and quite raucous - hanging. Growing up in Leiden, in the same neighborhood as Flora and Rembrandt himself, Kindt was the physically and emotionally abused son of a leather worker and, in Siegal's imagination, a petty but persistent thief hanged for his inveterate and irremediable life of crime. As was the custom of the day, his body was legally assigned to an anatomist for public dissection. With a non-linear narrative, organized into brief chapters entitled for body parts, Siegal traces the beginnings of three of the protagonists - Kindt, Flora, and Rembrandt. She constructs  how their lives intersect not only before, during and after the hanging, but also in more philosophical strokes, namely the medical, theological and artistic tapestry on which this image rests. There are several minor characters, like Tulp and his family; Jan Fetchet, the "famulus" responsible for securing and preparing Kindt's body immediately following the hanging; and even René Descartes, who seems to have been in town during this momentous occasion pursuing his own polymathic research, which included anatomy at the time.  Siegal adds a few reports dictated by a fictional modern- day conservator offering her interpretation of many of the details of Rembrandt's masterpiece, details that serve to highlight aspects of Siegal's narrative, such as the possible artistic re-implantation of Kindt's amputated right hand.

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Summary:

In this remarkable anthology, 51 women and men describe their nursing school experiences, from initial fears and anxieties to increasing confidence and appreciation of the profession.  Jeanne Bryner, in her Introduction, explains how she and Cortney Davis deliberately sought a diverse group of nurse-writers, from recent nursing graduates in their twenties to seasoned veterans in their nineties.  Their collection includes different races, nationalities, social and economic classes, and education levels.  What the contributors have in common besides being nurses is that they are gifted writers able to capture in poetry or prose the transforming moments of their lives. Nursing students reading this anthology will recognize many kindred souls, struggling with the same uncertainties and apprehensions, wondering how they will ever accomplish all this, but also gaining command of the profession, relishing its special rewards, valuing patients as their ultimate teachers. All readers will understand what is so special about nursing .




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