Showing 11 - 20 of 280 annotations tagged with the keyword "Illness Narrative/Pathography"

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

In That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health (subtitled “Disease, Death and Composers”), Jonathan Noble, a retired surgeon gives us the medical and psychiatric history of seventy classical music composers. Chapters are organized by illness, ranging from cancer to syphilis to alcoholism.  Famous composers such as Schubert and Shostakovich predominate, but many lesser-known composers, ranging from Jeremiah Clarke to Gerald Finzi, are also included.  

Mozart is one composer whose cause of death has long been the subject of controversy, and the various theories are comprehensively explored here. However, the author goes even further, developing a detailed medical case study of the composer beginning in childhood.  He examines the toll that Leopold Mozart’s exploitation took on his prodigy son’s constitution, what Wolfgang’s appearance in the surviving portraits has to say about his general health, and even whether he may have had Tourette’s Syndrome. Finally, the author ties all of this together, methodically refuting or confirming each diagnosis, offering far deeper analysis than one would expect to find in a standard biography.  

Another example, the case of Tchaikovsky, reads like a veritable whodunit. The composer’s activities during the last two months of his life are scrutinized, with the likely causes of death systematically disproven or confirmed.  

A list of composers who suffered accidental or violent deaths provides some surprises. You will learn that Lully accidentally stabbed himself with his conductor’s baton, and that Alkan may have been crushed to death by a bookcase upon pulling his Talmud off a shelf.

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Summary:

In 2006, Emergency medicine trainee, Damon, and his wife, Trisha, have two boys, Thai (age 4) and Callum (age 2.5).  All is well in their lives until Callum begins vomiting for no apparent reason.  He is found to have medulloblastoma, an aggressive brain tumour, for which the only possible hope for a cure comes from surgery and six cycles of ever more arduous chemotherapy with stem cell recovery at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The little family moves to Toronto and commits to supporting Callum as best they can, ensuring that he is never alone even during his long weeks of reverse isolation. They also try to keep Thai nearby, involved and aware, with the help of a local school and grandparents. But Callum dies during the last cycle of treatment.  

Saddened, exhausted, and bereaved, Damon and Trisha go back to their home town and try to (re)construct their lives, slowly returning to studies and work. They find meaning in creating tangible and intangible memorials to their lost son, and they find purpose in the more difficult task of moving forward, never losing the pain of grief. They adopt a little girl. Damon knows that Callum is always with him and the experience of his illness and death has dramatically infused his work as a physician.

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A Mind Unraveled: A Memoir

Eichenwald, Kurt

Last Updated: Jan-02-2019
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Kurt Eichenwald shares his experiences living with epilepsy in an electrifying narrative. Beginning with staring spells as a child and then later on generalized convulsions with loss of consciousness, he experiences as many as 4 seizures a week between the ages of 18 to 30. After that, the seizures become milder and less frequent. Coincidentally, his wife, father, and older brother are physicians and his mother a nurse.

Eichenwald describes his encounters with multiple neurologists, the best of them being Dr. Naarden. Unfortunately, other health professionals are portrayed as incompetent, careless, lacking empathy, or even unscrupulous. Multiple mishaps with prescribed anticonvulsant medications are chronicled – drug side effects, toxic levels of medicines, and a bout of bone marrow suppression. He suffers broken ribs, cuts and wounds, burns, and is even blanketed by deep snow due to seizures.

Eichenwald acknowledges the toll that epilepsy exacts on roommates, friends, and family. He admits to lots of fear and guilt. At one point, he seriously considers suicide by overdosing. Everyday life is hardly ever ordinary: “Now I was scared every day, checking where I stood for dangers, wondering when consciousness would disappear” (p157). A large section of his account details the discrimination he encounters at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the early 1980’s. The school dismisses him because of his uncontrolled epilepsy. He successfully fights their decision and returns to graduate. Obtaining and holding a job is complicated by his illness, but Eichenwald becomes a journalist who works for the New York Times.




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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:
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 Center Cannot Hold

Wells, Kenneth

Last Updated: Jul-31-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Theater

Genre: Theater

Summary:

This is an opera based on Elyn R. Saks’s best-selling book The Center Cannot Hold.  Subtitled “My Journey Through Madness,” the memoir recounts the author’s struggle with schizophrenia.  Here, Saks has collaborated with composer/psychiatrist Kenneth B. Wells on the opera’s libretto.  

The librettists utilize the device of having three different singers portray Elyn.  One manifestation, the “Lady of the Charts,” represents her when psychotic.  The others are Elyn as a law student and the present day Professor Saks as a law professor.  Another dramatic device involves the use of a chorus to embody the protagonist’s schizophrenic delusions.  At the height of her paranoia, as Elyn sings Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in an effort to keep herself together, the chorus recalls the Symphony’s opening notes by singing “Elyn must die.”  

The opera opens with Elyn as Professor Saks reflecting on her childhood. Even then there were signs of the illness that, to quote a famous poem by William Butler Yeats, ensures “the center cannot hold” in Elyn’s life. During the first act, Elyn, a Yale law student, becomes psychotic in front of her friends and is hospitalized. In a Connecticut hospital she is put in restraints and treated by various mental health professionals. She imagines she hears demons threatening to kill her.  Elyn’s diagnosis and condition overwhelm her parents, who have been called by the hospital.  

In the second act, Elyn works to reintegrate her fragmented mind.  She is determined to get back to law school.  She is released from the hospital. She finds an antipsychotic medication, with fewer side effects, that she can live with. She resolves to devote her career to mental health law.  At the conclusion of the opera, Elyn anticipates graduation.  She has been instrumental in winning a class action suit against the use of restraints in psychiatric patients.  Her parents, friends and doctors proclaim their pride in her accomplishments.

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

Victorians Undone is no ordinary history book.  If you have ever felt dissatisfied by a sterile biography, wondering if its subject actually possessed bodily functions, look no further.  Here, British historian Kathryn Hughes undoes centuries of sheltering the reader from the unseemly by putting it on full display.  While the very term “Victorian” evokes an image of propriety, it was also a time of population displacement from the country to cities where “other people’s sneezes, bums, elbows, smells, snores, farts and breathy whistles were, quite literally, in your face”  (p. xi). The author seeks to rectify the imbalance by creating a history that puts “mouths, bellies and beards back into the nineteenth century“ (p. xiv), which she hopes will “add something to our understanding of what it meant to be a human animal“ (p. xv) during the Victorian Era.  

The book consists of five essays, each following a part of the body of an historical figure. In the first, entitled “Lady Flora’s Belly,” we learn about the tragic saga of Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting.  Did Flora’s protuberant abdomen conceal a tumor or a baby?  It was harder to find out than one might think.  Most women went through their lives without ever exposing their private parts to anyone but their husband.   Medical consultation when unavoidable might be conducted discretely, by post. 
 

Other essays focus on George Eliot’s hands, Fanny Cornforth’s (the lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter) sensual mouth, and the beard that Charles Darwin’s grew to hide his eczema.  The book concludes with the gruesome tale of the dismemberment of Fanny Adams, an early case study in forensic pathology. The term "Fanny Adams" soon came, in navy slang, to mean unpleasant meat rations.

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Weeks after the birth of her child, the writer receives a phone call informing her that her mother, who has gone missing, has hanged herself.  This memoir, like others written in the aftermath of similar trauma, is an effort to make some sense of the mother’s mental illness and horrifying death. Unlike many others, though, it is the story of a family system—and to some extent a medical system—bewildered by an illness that, even if it carried known diagnostic labels, was hard to treat effectively and meaningfully.  The short chapters alternate three kinds of narrative:  in some the writer addresses her mother; in some she recalls scenes from her own childhood, plagued by a range of symptoms and illness, and her gradual awareness of her gifted mother’s pathological imagination; in some she reproduces the transcript of a video production her mother narrated entitled “The Art of Misdiagnosis” about her own and her daughters’ medical histories. Threaded among memories of her early life are those of her very present life with a husband, older children, a new baby, a beloved sister and a father who has also suffered the effects of the mother’s psychosis at close range.  

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Every Note Played

Genova, Lisa

Last Updated: Apr-10-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This is a dramatic and moving story about a concert pianist who, at 45 years of age, suddenly and inexplicably, has ALS, and also equally about his ex-wife Karina, who takes on his care throughout his slow, inevitable, and lethal decline. As many readers know, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). or “Lou Gherig’s disease,” hardens the motor nerves so that, progressively, there is no more control of muscles throughout the body. Not many readers know, however, the difficult path such patients and their families must pursue. This sensitive and detailed novel takes readers powerfully into the world of ALS, a disease for which there is today no cure.                                                                                      

Obsessed with his musical career and international travel, Richard has paid little attention to Karina and their daughter, Grace, and he has had affairs with other women. Karina has deceived him about her inability to bear more children. Because of their move from New York City to Boston, Karina, also a gifted pianist, has lost a possible career in jazz and now gives piano lessons to unpromising students. 

The first several chapters alternate between Richard and Karina. Although divorced from him, she brings him, now an ALS patient, back into the home they once shared. Various nurses, doctors, and other specialists try to explain the difficult future that includes certain loss of body functions, but Richard and Karina are slow to comprehend these. Despite their denial, they are forced to come to terms with Richard’s progressive decline and, finally, death.     
          
Richard loses the ability to use his hands, then his arms. He needs a special machine to breathe at night. Soon he has paid caregivers for parts of the day; these include a cheery and admirable man named Bill. No longer able to eat, Richard has a feeding tube. Later he needs a hospital bed. Also a Head Mouse to work his computer. Also an elaborate wheelchair. With unresolved issues in the past, Richard and Karina are emotionally apart—even with feelings of hate and rage—even while she cares for him.  

Karina’s walking partner Elise, a teacher, helps her stay sane. Karina travels to New Orleans with Elise and her class and finds her interest in jazz reawakened. No longer able to breathe even with assistance, should Richard go on to mechanical ventilation that will require 24-hour care at enormous expense? A choice is made. Richard dies, with various resolutions before and after his death.  

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Spy of the First Person

Shepard, Sam

Last Updated: Jan-30-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Spy of the First Person is a short semi-autobiographical narrative about a man with a debilitating condition.  He spends most of his time sitting in a wheelchair on his porch, goes for tests to the Arizona campus of the Mayo Clinic, and has a “handicapped sign hanging from the rearview mirror of his car” (p. 15). The man’s illness is unnamed, but we learn that his motor skills are grossly impaired: “His hands and arms don’t work much.  He uses his legs, his knees, his thighs, to bring his arms and hands to his face in order to be able to eat his cheese and crackers” (ibid).   

The story is told from various, shifting points of view.  At times we are in the head of the protagonist.  At other times, the perspective is that of a nosy neighbor who peers at the sick man through binoculars, hence the book’s title. There is a parallel narrative about an elderly couple and the wife’s gradual decline in health.  The Southwest plays such an important role here one might even say that it too is a character. 
 

There are also frequent shifts of tense.  It is not always clear whether we are in the past or present.  We alternate between the central character’s fantasies, memories, and observations. The effect of intertwining voices and tenses is reinforced by the brevity of the chapters, many no longer than a paragraph.  The overall impression is that while he may no longer have full control over his body, the man has retained an active (one might say overactive) mind.
 

Spy of the First Person
concludes as the man’s children take him to a Mexican restaurant.  The vivid description of a meal shared with his loved ones provides a sharp contrast to the inner thoughts that provide the bulk of this book.

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