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The Physician in Literature is an anthology edited and introduced by Norman Cousins that aims to illustrate the multiple ways in which doctors are portrayed in world literature. Literary selections are organized into 12 categories including Research and Serendipity, The Role of the Physician, Gods and Demons, Quacks and Clowns, Clinical Descriptions in Literature, Doctors and Students, The Practice, Women and Healing, Madness, Dying, The Patient, and An Enduring Tradition.
Some of the notable authors represented in this collection include Leo Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Albert Camus, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Anton P. Chekhov, Orwell, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevski, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Gustave Flaubert, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A healthy dose of William Carlos Williams makes for some of the most enjoyable reading ("The Use of Force" and excerpts from his Autobiography).
Many years later, a plastic surgeon is still haunted by memories of the war atrocities he committed as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He returns to Vietnam searching for atonement. He spends two weeks there as a medical volunteer, repairing the cleft lips and palates of 30 children. He meets the director of the hospital, Dr. Lieh Viet Dinh, who once was a member of the North Vietnamese Army.
During the war, Dr. Dinh was tortured and both his thumbs were cut off. He asks the plastic surgeon to perform a toe transplant to replace one of his missing thumbs. Despite the initial optimism of both men, the operation ultimately fails as the digit becomes gangrenous and then dead. Once again, Vietnam has proven to be a dangerous place seeping hardship and disappointment. Only now the surgeon is capable of accepting the land and its risks as he makes peace with the country and himself.
Mrs. Wilson is a woman diagnosed with an advanced malignancy of the genital tract. Her husband had died from cancer ten years earlier. She is treated with a hysterectomy and oophorectomy along with aggressive chemotherapy by a good doctor who has no bedside manner.
Throughout the story her best friends are always medications to relieve pain: Dilaudid, morphine, Tylenol #3, and methadone. Only her son-in-law really understands her needs and comprehends how to care for her. He is genuine and vital and appears to know as much or more than the doctors in the story.
Mrs. Wilson acknowledges that "to maybe get well you first had to poison yourself within a whisker of death" but discovers that "if you had something to live for, if you loved life, you lived." She dies in a hospital room receiving an IV morphine drip. Before fading into oblivion, she recalls her youth and makes one last attempt at fathoming the meaning of life.
In fourteenth century France, a 15 year old virgin, Blanche, levitates in church and nine months later gives birth to a daughter named Bonne. When Bonne is only 12 years old, Blanche is burned alive along with other "sinners" in a church. Bonne becomes a professional breast-feeder or "wet nurse." Her breast milk never stops flowing and seems to have restorative powers.
She finds herself catapulted from outcast to saint despite a series of catastrophes. When her town of Villeneuve is under siege and starving, she breast feeds not just children but many of the townspeople as well, asking only to listen to the individual's life story in exchange for her milk. Bonne's fate becomes deeply entangled with the lives of three friends: Godfridus (a chaste sculptor who goes mad), Hercules Legrand (a dwarf), and Radegonde Putemonnoie (a wealthy pregnant widow who hires Bonne).
Eva McEwen is born in Scotland in 1920. Her mother dies shortly after giving birth to her. At the age of six, Eva is "visited" by two strangers (an older woman and a teenage girl) that only she can see and hear. These mysterious companions steer the course of her life. During World War II, Eva serves as a nurse in a burn unit.
She falls in love with a plastic surgeon but her supernatural attendants have other plans for Eva. She secures a job as a school nurse, marries a teacher, and has a daughter. Sadly, Eva dies at a young age from cancer of the liver and pancreas. Thus the novel ends much like it began, with the tragic death of a young mother who leaves behind a devoted husband and daughter while ghostly visitors are poised to both share and meddle in the youngster's life.
The novel opens with a man known only as Pilgrim hanging himself in London in 1912. Despite being pronounced dead by two physicians, he somehow lives. Pilgrim has attempted suicide many times before but is seemingly unable to die. He claims to have endured life for thousands of years but has tired of living and only longs for death. He has crossed paths with many historical figures including Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Teresa, Oscar Wilde, and Auguste Rodin.
After his most recent suicide attempt, he is admitted to a psychiatric facility in Zurich as a patient of the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. Pilgrim eventually escapes from the institution and masterminds the successful theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. Next, he sets the cathedral at Chartres on fire. The novel ends with Pilgrim driving a car into a river on the eve of World War I. His body is never found.
The Exact Location of the Soul is a collection of 26 essays along with an introduction titled "The Making of a Doctor/Writer." Most of these essays are reprinted from Selzer's earlier books (especially Mortal Lessons and Letters to a Young Doctor). Six pieces are new and include a commentary on the problem of AIDS in Haiti ("A Mask on the Face of Death"), musings on organ donation ("Brain Death: A Hesitation"), a conversation between a mother and son ("Of Nazareth and New Haven"), and the suicide of a college student ("Phantom Vision").
Sleep is a much sought-after prize in this novel. Bonnie Saks is a 39 year old woman whose life has spiraled out of control. Already divorced and the mother of two young boys, she is tormented by insomnia. Her life is further complicated when she discovers she is pregnant and struggles to complete her unfinished dissertation on American literature.
Ian Ogelvie is a 29 year old psychiatrist and sleep researcher experimenting with a breakthrough drug known as Dodabulax that greatly enhances REM sleep. While Ian helps Bonnie sleep, she in turn provides him with a wake up call of sorts. Ultimately, Bonnie becomes uneasy with the changes triggered by her blue pills. Despite suffering a miscarriage, her life becomes more tolerable and her insight much clearer.
A sudden epidemic of blindness spreads throughout an unidentified country. When those who have lost their sight are examined, however, no evidence of pathology or damage can be found. The afflicted all describe "seeing" not darkness but rather a dense, impenetrable whiteness.
Because the government believes the disease is contagious, those people initially affected are quickly quarantined in a former mental hospital that is guarded by soldiers. There, the blind are treated like lepers and live like animals. Enigmatically, the wife of a sightless ophthalmologist has been spared from going blind. She functions as both protector and caregiver of a small group of blind people. They escape their imprisonment only when their captors (and presumably everyone except the ophthalmologist's wife) lose their sight.
Life is reduced to a constant search for food. As the situation grows even more grisly, vision is not only abruptly restored but perhaps with a clarity greater than ever before. When crowds of people rejoice "I can see," the reader wonders whether their earlier loss of sight was genuine or maybe some form of psychic blindness or spiritual malaise.
Tom Hogue is a nonpracticing Catholic who develops a mysterious dermatologic disorder. Five areas of chapped and painful skin located on his hands, feet, and below his ribs begin to bleed simultaneously. The reluctant stigmatic soon experiences weight loss and insomnia and has premonitions. He attempts self-treatment before consulting in order his local pharmacist, primary care physician, a dermatologist, and eventually a psychiatrist.
He is diagnosed as having "psychogenic purpura" and his condition seems to improve with psychiatric treatment. Initially Hogue questions the validity of his stigmata and is uneasy with his religious celebrity. When his affliction spontaneously resolves, he has difficulty adjusting to his new life. A chance encounter with a woman whose life had been profoundly affected by Hogue when he still retained the stigmata leads him to consider self-mutilation as he fondles a steak knife beneath the table during their conversation.