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El Deafo

Bell, Cece

Last Updated: Nov-30-2015
Annotated by:
Lam, Gretl

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

El Deafo is a graphic novel and memoir describing the author’s childhood experiences after she loses her hearing from meningitis at age 4. During her first year in school, she attends a special class with other students who also wear hearing aids. They have fun and learn how to lip read together. However, Cece’s family moves to a new neighborhood the following year, and she is forced to attend regular classes at a new school. In order to understand her teachers, she gets a powerful new hearing aid known as the Phonic Ear, which is a large device she must wear strapped to her chest. The Ear makes her feel more self conscious than ever. She struggles to fit in and make friends at school, and often feels very lonely. However, she discovers that the Phonic Ear also gives her a “superpower” – she can hear what her teacher is saying and doing around the school, even when they are not in the same room together! To cheer herself up, she pretends she is a superhero named El Deafo with super-hearing. Even better, her newly realized powers soon make her the popular kid at school because she can warn everyone to quit goofing off when the teacher is coming.

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The Not-Dead and the Saved

Clanchy, Kate

Last Updated: Nov-23-2015
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Two individuals share a struggle that is grueling, depressing, and whose outcome is probably preordained. The Mother (divorced, constantly tired, and fearful of sickness) is "not a good choice for the parent of a chronic invalid" (p. 168). The Son (smallish, clever, and born with some kind of tumor) has previously had an organ transplant (most likely kidney).

Their trek through the realm of sickness unfurls in seven scenes - all hospital wards and finally Hospice. First, the Son is an adolescent in a pediatric ward where the Machine (presumably renal dialysis) prevents his death. There he spots a baby that he dubs a "Not-Dead." She has multiple birth defects due to a chromosomal abnormality and is kept alive by technology. He intuits that while not dead, the baby is not "properly alive" either. He muses about his own status. His mother is always bedside, propping up his spirits.

Next he is in the ICU and then transferred to a medical floor. He receives a blood transfusion after disconnecting the Machine in a likely suicide attempt. Sometime later, he is back in the pediatric ward after receiving an organ transplant. The Son gets admitted to the Cardio-Respiratory unit for a severe infection. In and out of hospitals, he enrolls in college but quits. After getting married, he joins a commune of survivors of medical illnesses known as "The Saved." This collective lives on a farm and members avoid any contact with family.

The Son's health further deteriorates. He is hospitalized in terminal condition. By this time, he has his own child, a 14-month-old boy named Jaybird. In the oncology ward, doctors diagnose three tumors in the Son's brain but he refuses any treatment (surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy). He is moved to Hospice. His absent Father comes to visit and comfort him. When the Son dies, it is the Mother who is alone with him. The Son's wife, Father, Jaybird, and members of The Saved commune are all asleep in the Day Room. Only after the Son dies are the names of the Mother and the Son revealed: Julia and Jonathon.

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Summary:

A mother (termed Mother in the story) discovers a blood clot in her young son's diaper and wonders "so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?" This discovery leads to a diagnosis of Wilms' tumor--a childhood malignancy of the kidney, and surgery to remove the diseased kidney.The parents are thrust into a new world--the world of pediatric oncology ("peed onk") and meet the Surgeon, the Oncologist, and the other anxious parents waiting in the Tiny Tim Lounge of the pediatric ward. Everyone is named by their relationship to the Mother or by their profession--Baby, Husband, Anesthesiologist.The reader is privy to the inner thoughts of the Mother--her anger, denial, protective instincts and dark ironic vision. The Mother is also a writer and advised to take notes of this odyssey in case they need money to pay the medical costs. She feels alien to the culture of the pediatric ward--only her artsy friends understand her hell. Notes one (Green Hair) "Everyone's so friendly here. Is there someone in this place who isn't doing all this airy, scripted optimism--or are people like that the only people here?"When the Mother is given the option of no post-operative chemotherapy for Baby, the Mother grabs the chance to leave the hospital, clutching Baby, and says "I never want to see any of these people again." The piece ends on the rhetorical and ironic question--where's the money for these notes, for the story?

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

A pot of boiling water falls off the stove. A diaper-clad toddler screams. His mother cries hysterically. The little boy is standing barefoot in a puddle of steaming water on the kitchen floor. The father who was busy hanging a door rushes into the room and quickly assesses the situation. He places the child in the kitchen sink and runs cold water over the boy.The child's skin is scalded. The father swaddles him in a wet towel but the toddler shrieks as if he is still being burned. Suddenly both parents realize they haven't checked the diaper. It burns their hands when they take it off. The diaper is filled with hot water that has collected inside it. The parents wrap their son in gauze and handtowels. They take him to the emergency room where "the child had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead." (p. 116)

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Next To Normal

Kitt, Tom; Yorkey, Brian

Last Updated: Nov-18-2015
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

Next to Normal is a musical, composed in a rock idiom.  

Meet the Goodmans, (father Dan, mother Diana, daughter Natalie) who on the surface resemble a “perfect loving family” like any one of millions.  However, from the outset we see that they are, in fact, a hair’s breadth from collapse:  Diana’s long-term struggle with bipolar disorder leaves her suffering uncontrollable mood swings.  Her illness fuels the chronic tension in her relationships with husband and daughter.  In addition, we learn that a son (Gabe), whom we initially believe to be an active family member, actually died years ago and his appearances represent Diana’s hallucination. 

As the show begins, Diana is undergoing a hypomanic episode that is resistant to treatment by her psychopharmacologist.  Discouraged by side effects and egged on by her phantom son, Diana flushes her pills down the toilet.  As she deteriorates, she visits a new psychiatrist who agrees at first to treat her without medication.  As she begins in psychotherapy, for the first time, to accept the loss of her son, she descends to a new clinical low.  At the close of the first act, after making a suicide attempt, she is hospitalized and agrees to be treated with ECT.   
 

By Act II, the ECT has effected great clinical improvement, with stabilization of Diana’s mood and no further hallucinations.  All this, however, has come at the expense of her memory.  As it returns, she becomes aware that what she most needs to remember, and process, are her feelings about losing a child.  In fact, we learn that she was kept from expressing them at the time because of concerns she might decompensate.  She struggles to make sense of all of this while remaining stable.  When she confronts Dan about Gabe, it is he who appears unable to discuss their loss.  She suddenly becomes aware that Dan has been enabling her in an unhealthy way.  She reconciles with her daughter, but realizes that in order to move forward she needs to get out of her dysfunctional marriage.  However, the door is left open on this relationship, for at the recommendation of her psychiatrist Dan enters psychotherapy.
 

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The Physician

Gordon, Noah

Last Updated: Nov-17-2015
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

When nine-year-old Rob Cole, child of poor 11th-century English farmers, loses his mother, he is consigned to the care of a barber-surgeon who takes him around the countryside, teaching him to juggle, sell potions of questionable value, and assist him in basic medical care that ranges from good practical first-aid to useless ritual.  When, eight years later, his mentor dies, Rob takes the wagon, horse, and trappings and embarks on a life-changing journey across Europe to learn real medicine from Avicenna in Persia.  Through a Jewish physician practicing in England, he has learned that Avicenna’s school is the only place to learn real medicine and develop the gift he has come to recognize in himself.  In addition to skill, he discovers in encounters with patients that he has sharp and accurate intuitions about their conditions, but little learning to enable him to heal them.  The journey with a caravan of Jewish merchants involves many trials, including arduous efforts to learn Persian and pass himself off as a Jew, since Christians are treated with hostility in the Muslim lands he is about to enter.  Refused at first at Avicenna’s school, he finally receives help from the Shah and becomes a star student.  His medical education culminates in travel as far as India, and illegal ventures into the body as he dissects the dead under cover of darkness.  Ultimately he marries the daughter of a Scottish merchant he had met but parted with in his outgoing journey, and, fleeing the dangers of war, returns with her and their two sons to the British Isles, where he sets up practice in Scotland.

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This thoughtful essay from the author of The Emperor of All Maladies expounds on information, uncertainty, and imperfection in the medical setting. The author recalls witnessing a difficult operation when he was a medical student. The attending surgeon admonished the operating room team, "Medicine asks you to make perfect decisions with imperfect information" (p.5). This essay is constructed around that idea as the author shares three personal principles that have guided him throughout his medical career.
     Law One: A strong intuition is much more powerful than a weak test. (p. 22)
     Law Two: "Normals" teach us rules; "outliers" teach us laws. (p. 38)
     Law Three: For every perfect medical experiment, there is a perfect human bias. (p.54)

He views the medical world as a "lawless, uncertain" place and stresses that biomedicine is a "softer science" than chemistry or physics. Clinical wisdom, in his opinion, is imperfect, fluid, and abstract whereas the knowledge base of other basic sciences is concrete, fixed, and certain. He laments, "My medical education had taught me plenty of facts, but little about the spaces that live between facts" (p. 6).

His own "laws" of medicine are actually laws of imperfection. Clinical diagnosis can be thought of as a "probability game" where human bias creeps into the process. And ultimately common sense trumps pure statistical reasoning. Woven into the discussion are considerations on a variety of topics - children with autism, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, genomics, radical masectomy, and randomized, double-blind studies. Nods to Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher), Thomas Bayes (Bayes' Theorem), and Johannes Kepler (Kepler's Laws of planetary motion) fit in nicely with the thrust of the treatise.


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A Lucky Life

Goldbloom, Richard

Last Updated: Nov-11-2015
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

Born into a Montreal Jewish family in 1924, Richard Goldbloom was always sensitive to minorities and at ease with difference. Jewish and Christian, French and English, music, theatre, and the arts in all forms were prevalent and valued in the family home. He became a skilled pianist and a gifted storyteller. Richard trained in medicine with his father and at McGill University then specialized in pediatrics at Harvard with the famous Charles A. Janeway at Boston Children’s Hospital.

He met the vivacious, intrepid Ruth Schwartz at McGill when they both auditioned for a play. Also Jewish, she hailed from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. They married in 1945 before his studies were complete and had three children. Unlike many male physicians of his era, Richard was in awe of this tiny dynamo and attributes his happiness and success to her.

In 1967, the family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Richard became Professor of Pediatrics, Physician in Chief and director of research at the new children’s hospital. Ruth was instrumental in a wide array of philanthropic endeavors that inevitably involved her husband. She developed a remarkable museum at Pier 21, the point of arrival for generations of immigrants to Canada—a place to gather their stories and their achievements.

Many anecdotes about clinical practice and scientific innovations are told with accessible enthusiasm and gentle humor. He dispels myths, exposes hidden agendas and explains with clear examples the importance of listening to children and their parents. Underlying the entire narrative is a refreshing humility and gratitude for his “lucky life.” 

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Best Boy

Gottlieb, Eli

Last Updated: Nov-09-2015

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Best Boy is a novel about Todd Aaron, a 54-year-old autistic man who has lived for 40 years in a Payton LivingCenter (sic); he was involuntarily committed to this facility. Todd has been in five previous places for congregate living, but Payton seems to be the best for him, thanks in part to a loving caregiver, Raykene. Todd has accepted the institutional “Law” of Payton and takes his drugs right on schedule, including Risperdal, an antipsychotic that slows him down, making a “roof” over him and muffling, he says, “the voice in my brain.”  The story is told from Todd’s point of view, often with startling imagery:  he pictures his dead parents turning into giant cigars, a raindrop “explodes,” and, when upset, he rocks back and forth and feels “volts.”  Now and then he recalls that his mother called him her “best boy.”
   
Into this stable setting come three personified disruptions. The first two are fellow patients, Terry Doon (a pun on “doom”?), a brain-injured roommate who teases, torments, and bullies Todd, and Martine Calhoun. While Terry disrupts Todd’s living space, Martine is a siren who lures him to different parts of Payton’s campus; she is also a rebel who urges him to stop taking Risperdal and shows him how to hide the drug in his hand and get rid of it later.   

The third is Mike Hinton, a day staffer who lies, manipulates, and in general mistreats Todd. Todd understands Hinton as evil and entertains violence against him—but does not act. Hinton has sex with a female patient who dies, apparently a suicide, although the language of Payton’s staff, as reported by Todd, euphemistically hides the truth.

Todd has the “Idea” of escape and sets out, on foot, to go 744 miles to “home.” A state policeman soon returns him to Payton.

Now and then Todd’s younger brother Nate calls, often while drinking. Near the end of the book, Nate and his wife Beth take Todd to his childhood home, where he had been abused physically and mentally. In a moving scene, Todd enters the only unchanged area, a crawl space and feels the return he yearned for.            

All three tormentors leave Payton, and there is a surprising resolution for Todd.  The balance and harmony of Payton’s LivingCenter are restored, and Todd, reminded by Raykene, affirms that “Somebody always loved me.” 

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Black Man in a White Coat

Tweedy, Damon

Last Updated: Nov-09-2015
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir focuses on the various ways in which his being an African American affected Tweedy’s medical education and early practice as a medical resident and later in psychiatry. Raised in the relative safety and privilege of an intact family, he found himself underprepared for some of the blatant forms of personal prejudice and institutional racism he encountered in his first years of medical education at Duke Medical School.  One shocking moment he recounts in some detail occurred when a professor, seeing him seated in the lecture hall, assumed he’d come to fix the lights.  Other distressing learning moments occur in his work at a clinic serving the rural poor, mostly black patients, where he comes to a new, heightened awareness of the socioeconomic forces that entrap them and how their lives and health are circumscribed and often shortened by those forces.  Well into his early years of practice he notices, with more and more awareness of social contexts and political forces, how the color line continues to make a difference in professional life, though in subtler ways.  The narrative recounts clearly and judiciously the moments of recognition and decision that have shaped his subsequent medical career.    

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