Showing 11 - 20 of 674 Nonfiction annotations

Songs from the Black Chair

Barber, Charles

Last Updated: Sep-08-2017
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Subtitled "A Memoir of Mental Interiors," this book is both an exploration of self and a search for reasons that led to the suicide of the author's friend, Henry, when both were of college age. But there is more. As the memoir unfolds, we learn that since childhood, the author experienced episodes of inexplicable, preoccupying, repetitive thoughts and behavior patterns--much later diagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). And finally, Barber discusses being drawn to work with mentally retarded people in a group home, and the mentally ill homeless at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.Growing up in an intellectual New England family with a tradition of sending its sons to Andover (a prestigious prep school) and Harvard, Barber was expected to continue the tradition, and so he did. At Harvard, however, Barber found himself disintegrating into obsessive thinking, unable to concentrate, near suicidal. He withdrew from Harvard, went back to his small town, hung out with his friends Henry and Nick, washed dishes in a local restaurant, took courses at the local college. Obsessive thinking continued to torment him.In desperation, he dropped out of college again, quickly finding a position as a "childcare worker" in a local group home. The author believes this step was the turning point that led eventually to effective treatment of his OCD (psychotherapy and Prozac), completion of his education, a fulfilling "career" in mental health recovery, and a happy family life. He is currently an associate of the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health at Yale University School of Medicine.

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Very early in this memoir, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar refers to an essay Sachin Jain and Christine Cassel published in JAMA (2010) that categorizes physicians as knights, knaves, or pawns. His take: “Knights are motivated by virtue…Knaves are selfish…Pawns are passive.” (p.7) Jauhar rides into medical practice as a knight in shining armor on a white horse after years and years of training. Would he be able to hang onto his knighthood?  

The book is divided into three parts—Ambition, Asperity, Adjustment—bookended by an introduction and epilogue. Jauhar’s disillusionment with American health care is his primary theme, and it connects these three parts:  

As a young adult I believed that the world was accommodating, that it would indulge my ambitions. In middle age, reality overwhelms that faith. You see the constraints and corruption. Your desires give way to pragmatism. The conviction that anything is possible is essentially gone. (pp. 5-6)  

Jauhar is comprehensive and unsparing in accounting for the sources of his disillusionment and his fall from knighthood. He was vulnerable to disillusionment from the start having been pushed by his parents in into medicine against his desires. His mother “wanted her children to become doctors so people would stand when we walked into the room,” (p. 21) and his father said that in medicine he “would have respect, wealth, and influence.” (p.133) He put off medical school for as long as he could by first getting a PhD in experimental physics. Finally, 19 years after first starting college he became a practicing cardiologist, though not without almost bailing out of medical school for a career in journalism as he writes in his first memoir, Intern (annotated here).  

Jauhar's first position was as a hospital staff member heading up a heart failure unit. As hospital staff he wasn’t paid as much as physicians in private practice. This differential wasn’t a problem by itself, but because the salary was insufficient for the lifestyle he sought and his wife—a physician also—urged him to provide, “I want nice things for us: a home, safe cars, good schools. They may seem trivial to you, but they are not to me.” (p. 75) This pressure was made worse by his older brother earning twice the income while working at the same hospital as an interventional cardiologist, and as well by all the other physicians in private practice who lived in big houses and drove fancy cars.  

The story then veers into a period when he sheds his knighthood for knavery. Jahaur joins a pharmaceutical company speaker bureau that supports a particular product and quits over his concern that the product may have been more toxic than first thought. Guided by his brother who says, “As much as we hate to admit it, patients are a commodity,” (p. 92) He takes positions with various private physician practices that operate more like procedure mills than health care providers.  

Jauhar does not do well as a knave, realizing “I had made a Faustian bargain. Having my eyes opened to the reality of contemporary medical practice had been painful. Now I had to make a choice. Continuing on this path was leading to ruin.” (p. 257) And so he tells of his adjustment, which for him is finding an “uneasy equilibrium” (p. 258) by continuing to work with private practices, just not as much, and spending more time with his family. Thus, in the end, Jauhar does not a return to full knighthood and becomes something closer to a knight with knavish tendencies or a knave with knight-like qualities.

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Dying: A Memoir

Taylor, Cory

Last Updated: Aug-21-2017

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Australian writer Cory Taylor was diagnosed with untreatable melanoma at the age of 60.  In a few short weeks she wrote this memoir, exploring what she was feeling and what is missing in modern medical care of the dying.  She died at the age of 61, a few months after this book appeared in her native country.  

The book has three parts. Part I, Cold Feet, starts right off discussing a euthanasia drug purchased online from China. Taylor’s melanoma has metastasized to many parts of her body, including her brain. It was first diagnosed in 2005, a malignant mole behind her right knee. In the decade of her cancer, she has tried three drug trials, thought about suicide, and received palliative care. She has harsh words for doctors who don’t mention death, a psychologist who doesn’t help her “Adjustment disorder,” and medicine in general that sees death as a failure.      
       
Taylor feels anger, sadness, and loneliness. She finds comfort and camaraderie in a group called Exit, where there’s frank discussion about death. She writes, “We’re like the last survivors on a sinking ship, huddled together for warmth” (p. 14). She has neither religious training nor interest in it. She became a writer late in life, and now she sees a clear purpose for her “final book.” She writes, “I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others can see it clearly. And I am making it bearable for myself” (p. 31).  

Although scared and suffering, she is reluctant to commit suicide because of the impact on her husband, two sons, and friends. Dying, she writes, “is by far the hardest thing I have ever done, and I will be glad when it’s over” (p. 49).

Part II, Dust and Ashes, describes her earlier life with her mother and father. Her parents were unhappy together and eventually divorced. In her life review, Taylor searches for meaning in the influences on her life. Her family moved often in Australia, also to Fiji and Africa. She feels rootless herself, traveling to England and Japan. Both of her parents die with dementia; she was with neither one at their ends.  
   
Part III, Endings and Beginnings, goes further back to her childhood. She reflects on an idyllic time in Fiji, her discovery of the power of language and writing, and various trials of growing up. She worries that she wasn’t vigilant enough in checking her skin, thereby allowing her disease to become fatal. She feels autonomy in having the Chinese euthanasia drug, but her life is clearly closing in. She says she weighs less than her neighbor’s dog. The last page of the book imagines her death as a cinematic montage, ending with “Fade to black” (p. 141).  

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The future of healthcare in the US has long been a subject of debate, with how to pay for it overshadowing other aspects of the topic. In publishing this work, the author, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, makes clear: “This book is about [the] transformation in the delivery of care in the United States” needed to ensure that “all Americans receive consistently higher-quality and lower-cost care.” (p. 15)   Paying for health care is not ignored, and indeed how health care payment methods figure in health care delivery is taken into account.  

Emanuel builds the book around 12 particular transformational practices as developed and applied in the several different health care organizations he studied. They included “small physician offices and large multispecialty group practices, accountable care organizations, large managed-care organizations, and even for-profit companies.” He admits to finding these organizations in “a careful, if somewhat haphazard, way” through a combination of serendipitous visits to some of these organizations, attendance at presentations showcasing some of them, and personal recommendations received. (p. 15) Emanuel identifies these 12 transformational practices through “carefully observing and ascribing significance when various groups and organizations in many different geographic locations, are independently reporting similar things.” (p. 16)  

The 12 transformational practices are covered across three chapters in the middle of the book. The first describes the practices that involve the way physician offices are structured and operate (e.g., scheduling patients, measuring physician performance, standardizing care, coordinating care), the second describes the practices that affect provider interactions with patients (e.g., shared decision making, site of service considerations), and the third, the practices that expand the scope of care beyond traditional boundaries (e.g., behavioral health, palliative care). Emanuel provides considerable detail on what these transformational practices entail and on the results they produce. These chapters are preceded by a separate chapter on recent changes in health care stimulating transformations, and a chapter on essential elements required for transformation: catalyzing crisis; leadership; culture, governance, and physician engagement; data; physician management alignment; and financial risk.

Emanuel recognizes that: “No organization can institute all 12 transformational practices all at once. No organization has the management capacity to do that.” (p. 197) Thus, he devotes a chapter on how organizations can adopt the transformational practices that are best suited to them. He aggregates the practices into three tiers and ranks them by prioritization. He carves out a separate chapter on “virtual medicine”—a collection of technologies and methods that enable a range of patient care activities (e.g., diagnosing, treating, monitoring) between different locations. Emanuel covers virtual medicine separately because his view is counter to the conventional wisdom espoused by “the medical techno-utopians,” as he calls them (p. 166) He allows that it can augment health care organization performance but itself is not a transformational practice because “healthcare is fundamentally social.” (p. 175) So as not to leave patients wondering how they could benefit from these practices, he devotes another chapter for them on how to find a doctor.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

In-Between Days: A Memoir about Living with Cancer is an accurate and suggestive title. At 37, Teva Harrison was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer with metastases to her bones. She lives between hopes for new treatments allowing a useful life but also fears about debility—some already caused by her treatments—and death. An artist, she has created a hybrid of a graphic novel with comic-book style drawing on the left page and traditional prose facing on the right, with variations of this format now and then.     
       
The imaginative world of the book ranges widely in mood, topic, and subject matter, and there is a helpful organization to group the material.
Her Preface tells us how drawing helped her gain some power over “the bogeyman that is my cancer” (p. 1). In her Prologue, she tells of “living in the shadows,” or “liminal spaces,” but choosing to occupy these as best she can (p. 3).            

Part One lays out the medical facts and dilemmas. The sections are Diagnosis, Treatment, and Side Effects. The author describes the turmoil of being sick with no clear cause, the emotional impact of the serious diagnosis on her and her family, also nausea, loss of fertility, dilemmas of pain management, and many side effects of treatment, including weight loss as well as sudden and torturous menopause.
  
Part Two explains her social status, her marriage, her “mixed-bag inheritance” (including high-risk Ashkenazi genes), and social aspects, including feeling invisible as a patient, accepting help from friends, being in a support group, and what does a likely “early demise” mean for her, an atheist?
         

Part Three explores the many emotions in sections for hope (using clinical trials, for example), gratitudes (“At least I’m wasting, not bloating”), wishes, fears, and “Managing Anxiety at Home” (pictures of yoga, gardening, long walks, house cleaning), self-blame, and—nonetheless—dreams. The final section “Incurable” names her current status: “In treatment for the rest of my life,” but the facing picture shows her as a large powerful bird flying among dramatic clouds with the words “I mean what do I have to lose?” Her prose affirms: “Live like a tornado, when I can.” 

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Annotated by:
Redel-Traub, Gabriel

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In Dr. Elizabeth Ford’s Sometimes Amazing Things Happen, Ford recounts her time spent on the Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward. The memoir is as much about her own personal growth as it is about the daunting, yet crucial care she provides to one of the country’s most vulnerable populations, prison inmates from Riker’s Island. Dr. Ford goes from being a nervous intern on her first day working in the ward to a confident—if not emotionally drained—director of the forensic pathology service all the while trying to balance her family life as a wife and mother. Dr. Ford’s patient encounters with the inmates all center around one crucial thing: trust. In many of her conversations, Dr. Ford works tirelessly to convince her patients, many of whom had suffered abuse or neglect in their younger life, that she is on their team. This process is, more often than not, an uphill battle. Nonetheless, it is an endeavor we see Dr. Ford embark on repeatedly throughout the memoir. For as she says, “My job is to try to look past [what they’ve done] and ... to care for them, to be curious about them and to be non-judgmental. It is a daily struggle, but one that I have found over the years [to be] incredibly rewarding."

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The title of this book, “An American Sickness,” refers to the author’s view that the costs people who require health care must bear in the U.S. causes its own sickness. The author, Elisabeth Rosenthal, is a physician-turned-journalist so her use of a medical metaphor to explain the harms health care costs are causing people comes naturally to her. The sickness metaphor forms the structure for the entire book, and in particular the way a physician approaches a patient with a health problem to diagnose and treat. Thus, the introduction to the book is the “chief complaint,” Part I is the “history of present illness and review of systems,” and Part II is “diagnosis and treatment.”  

The chief complaint is: “hugely expensive medical care that doesn’t reliably deliver quality results.” (p. 4) This complaint is also relatively acute given that the financial toxicity health care causes has become so extreme over just the 25-year period starting in the early 1990s. This was the time it took in Rosenthal’s view for American medicine to transform from a “caring endeavor to the most profitable industry in the United States.” (p. 4)  

The source of this complaint cannot be located in one segment of society or in one part of health care in the U.S. It’s diffuse. Therefore, Rosenthal exams several components of American health care to isolate specific causes for the financial toxicity people are experiencing—her review of systems. She exams 11 particular components, with each one comprising a separate chapter as follows: insurance; hospitals; physicians; pharmaceuticals; medical devices; testing and ancillary services; contractors; research; conglomerates; health care as businesses; and the Affordable Care Act.  

Part II on diagnosis and treatment takes the form of a how-to book, as the book’s subtitle announces. Rosenthal is speaking to health care consumers—i.e., all of us—and commanding our attention: “The American healthcare system is rigged against you. It’s a crapshoot and from day to day, no one knows if it will work well to address a particular ailment.” (p. 241) After a chapter on the consequences of being complacent with our personal health care utilization and costs, Rosenthal provides advice in subsequent chapters on these topics: doctor’s bills; hospital bills; insurance costs; drug and medical device costs; bills for tests and ancillary services; and managing all this in a digital age.  

The book is replete with case studies. The writing is geared toward health care consumers who have no expertise in any aspect of health care—it is Rosenthal the health care journalist writing, not Rosenthal the physician and health policy expert. 

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Annotated by:
Bruell, Lucy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Longform journalism

Summary:

Emergency Doctor is a riveting, informative account of the workings of the Emergency Department at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, the oldest public hospital in the country.  On any given day, tourists, residents, the wealthy and those who live in shelters come to the Emergency Department, some with life threatening injuries and others who need little more than a hot meal and a shower.  No one is turned away.  

Published in 1987, the book was written by a former editor at Reader’s Digest in cooperation with Dr. Lewis Goldfrank, the former Director of Emergency Services and a leading toxicologist.  Goldfrank’s personal story of his path to emergency medicine and his experience in creating the Emergency Department out of what was once known as the Emergency Room frame the narrative, but the main focus is on the day to day activities of the patients and staff in the Emergency Department.  Because Bellevue is NYC’s main trauma center, the book is rich with stories of trauma including construction accidents, cardiac arrests, fires and suicide attempts among others.  Even the title chapters-- "A Question of Poison," "An Alkaloid Plague," "The Case of the Crazed Executives," for example—convey the urgency and medical detective work needed for each person who comes through the triage area. 
“We don’t know if a patient is alive or dead when we first see him,” Dr. Goldfrank says.  “And we’re never sure what we’re going to find, or what kind of emergency medicine we may be called upon to practice—surgery, neurology, pediatrics, psychiatry, cardiology, obstetrics. (p118)   Accident victims are stabilized in the trauma area and rushed to the operating room. People with cancer, or TB, children who have been abused, broken bones, suicide attempts, accidental or intentional poisoning and overdoses—all must be evaluated and decisions made whether they should be admitted to a medical floor, the operating room or perhaps kept for observation.

Beyond medical expertise, however, working in the Emergency Department requires a large dose of compassion to cope with the needs of patients who rely on the Emergency Department for basic care for their chronic conditions such as asthma,  and social services because they lack a place to live or have no means of support.   Perhaps they need to detox from alcohol or have mental health issues.  “Emergency medicine demands the most intense involvement personally and intellectually,” observes Dr. Stephen Waxman. “Every area of clinical medicine is practiced, every emotion is taxed.”  (p 119)      



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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Volck’s memoir describes his medical practice and learning in a variety of settings (Cleveland, Baltimore, Cincinnati), but, more importantly, in non-metropolitan places, such as Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and rural clinics in Honduras. He suggests that his knowledge of medicine has largely come as he has practiced it and not from his formal education. Further, he believes that best medical practice is not primarily high-tech, urban, or industrial. Each of the 15 chapters has a title—a topic, a person, or a theme—but also one or more locations specified. For example, we have “Chapter One, A Wedding, Navajo Nation, Northern Arizona,” suggesting the importance of culture and locale. Further, the chapters include personal associations from several realms beyond the topic and place as Volck seeks to understand medicine, healthcare, and how we live in the world.           

Of the first seven chapters, five are set in Navajo land, where Volck is an outsider by his cultural heritage and his profession, a doctor with a pediatrics specialty. From time to time he reflects on his training, the English verb “to attend,” and specific patients, such as two-year-old Alice in Tuba City and eight-year-old Brian in Cleveland. Both children died while in his care. Working on the front-line of medicine, he considers the weaknesses of our modern attitudes toward death and our wishes for control. He also wrestles with personal lifestyle issues of balancing medicine, family, and an urge to write.
 
           
Other chapters describe restlessness in his profession, the growth of his family (including the adoption of a Guatemalan baby girl), hiking in the Grand Canyon, camping in the rain, and a retreat with Benedictine monks. Chapter 11 “Embodying the Word” discusses literature and medicine, lectio divina (a Benedictine reading practice), and the need to listen carefully to patients’ stories.
           
The final chapter returns to Cincinnati, Honduras, and Tuba City. Volck has found more projects in the Navajo Nation, including a youth service project from his church. With permission, he conducts interviews and plans a book on the Navajo, “drawing on cultural history, anthropology, history, medicine, and politics” (p. 201).

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

In this book, Ivan Illich offers a harsh critique of health care as provided in western industrialized societies during the 1970s. However, he did not write this book as a health care expert. He was trained as a medieval historian and philosopher, and taught the history of friendship and the history of the art of suffering. Indeed, he admitted:  “I do not care about health.” (p. i) And yet, he could have written the same critique 40 years later.  

What brought Illich’s attention to health care was his broader interest in how modern responses to societal level challenges become counterproductive and even harmful:
The threat which current medicine represents to the health of populations is analogous to the threat which the volume and intensity of traffic represent to mobility, the threat which education and the media represent to learning, and the threat which urbanization represents to competence in homemaking. (p. 7)
Illich’s general thesis is that health care can work against the healing people seek from it, that health care can be as pathogenic as disease, and that health care can expropriate health. Health care is a nemesis to its subjects, he asserted, because it is “a social organization that set out to improve and equalize the opportunity for each man to cope in autonomy and ended by destroying it.” (p. 275)  

Illich builds his argument around the concept of iatrogenesis, which he differentiates into three categories: 1) clinical iatrogenesis, 2) social iatrogenesis, and 3) cultural iatrogenesis, each of which is given a separate section in the book.

Clinical iatrogenesis is the harm done to people as the result of actions taken to restore health or prevent illness, such as an adverse drug event, a hospital-acquired infection, or perforated bowel from a screening colonoscopy. Illich characterizes clinical iatrogenesis as it is understood and used in biomedical circles, but he brings a particular poignancy to it when he refers to “remedies, physicians, or hospitals [as] the pathogens, or ‘sickening’ agents” at work. (p. 27)  

With social iatrogenesis, Illich is referring to the harm societal arrangements for health care can inflict on people it’s meant to help. These arrangements comprise hospitals, physicians, health care product industries, insurers, and government agencies. The net effect of their actions is to standardize health care, and in Illich’s view, standardizing health care amounts to the “medicalization of life.” The more life is medicalized, the more people are forced to operate under the influence of organized health care, “when all suffering is ‘hospitalized’ and homes become inhospitable to birth, sickness, and death; when the language in which people could experience their bodies is turned into bureaucratic gobbledegook; or when suffering, mourning, and healing outside the patient role are labeled a form of deviance.”
(p. 41)  Harm results to people whose ideas of what constitutes illness and whose preferences in the management of their illnesses do not match up with standardized health care. They could be harmed by treatments they don’t think they need, such as drugs to blunt grief, or in the ways they do not prefer, such as in a hospital. Thus, in social iatrogenesis, the social arrangements of health care are the pathogens.  

Before the social movements and transformations produced standardized health care, people of various cultures coped and adjusted in their own ways to the suffering they experienced. Illich’s cultural iatrogenesis occurs when societies capitulate to “professionally organized medicine [that] has come to function as a domineering moral enterprise that advertise industrial expansion as a war against all suffering.” (p. 127)  Illich is not saying that suffering is good and should be preserved, but rather that societies coming under the control of industrialized health care suffer more and suffer in ways they no longer have the authority or will to manage. Cultural iatrogenesis also manifests when professionally organized medicine supplants community responses to health problems people in that community experience: “The siren of one ambulance can destroy Samaritan attitudes in a whole Chilean town.” (p. 8) He elaborates on how cultural iatrogenesis works against people with examples involving treatment of pain, creating and eliminating diseases, and death and dying. 

Illich’s thoughts on countering the counter productivity of industrial health care take up the last section of the book. He does not propose tearing down organized health care, but rather getting it to where “health is identical with the degree of lived freedom,” because “beyond a certain level of intensity, health care, however equitably distributed, will smother health-as-freedom.” (p. 242)  Illich is beseeching organized health care to leave life less medicalized so as to leave more room for people to decide themselves if their challenges are a matter of health or not, and how they would prefer to manage them when health care may have a role. To this end, he concentrated this section of the book mostly on the political responses required to restore “freedom and rights” people ought to have to manage their health.  

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