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The Story of Beautiful Girl

Simon, Rachel

Last Updated: Aug-07-2017
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

On a stormy night in 1968 a retired, widowed schoolteacher in rural Pennsylvania opens her door to find a young couple, she white, he African American, wrapped in blankets, drenched, and silent.  Letting them in changes her life.  They have escaped together from a nearby mental institution most locals simply call "The School."  The young woman has recently given birth.  When Martha lets them in, her life changes forever.   Supervisors from "the School" show up at the door, the young man escapes, and the young woman, memorably beautiful, is taken back into custody.  The only words she is able to speak out of what we learn has been a years-long silence are "Hide her."  Thus she leaves her newborn baby to be raised by a stranger.  The remaining chapters span more than forty years in the stories of these people, linked by fate and love and the brutalities of an unreformed system that incarcerated, neglected, and not infrequently abused people who were often misdiagnosed.  Homan, the young man who loved Lynnie, the beautiful girl from the institution, was deaf, not retarded.  Lynnie was simply "slow," but a gifted artist who recorded many of the events of her life in drawings she shared only with the one attendant who valued and loved her.  Though her pregnancy resulted from being raped by a staff member, the deaf man longs to protect her and care for the baby.  Years separate them; Homan eventually learns signing; Lynnie's sister befriends her and an exposé results in the closure of the institution.  Over those years Lynnie and Homan witness much cultural change in treatment of people like them who were once systematically excluded.  They find social identities that once would have been entirely unavailable to them.  And eventually, after literal and figurative journeys of discovery, they rediscover each other.   

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Catullus 101

Catullus, Gaius Valerius

Last Updated: Jul-30-2017
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Latin

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

(See reference)


English

Brother, I come o'er many seas and lands
To the sad rite which pious love ordains, 
To pay thee the last gift that death demands ;
And oft, though vain, invoke thy mute remains : 
Since death has ravish'd half myself in thee,
Oh wretched brother, sadly torn from me ! 

And now ere fate our souls shall re-unite,
To give me back all it hath snatch'd away, 
Receive the gifts, our fathers' ancient rite
To shades departed still was wont to pay ;
Gifts wet with tears of heartfelt grief that tell,
And ever, brother, bless thee, and farewell!

Catullus, G. V., & Lamb, G. (1821). The poems of Caius Valerius Catullus. London: J. Murray. Vol. II: page 94.

Catullus 101 is a 10 line elegy that Catullus, a Roman lyric poet (84 - 54? BCE), wrote upon the occasion of his visiting the tomb (probably as part of his trip to Bithynia in 57 BCE) of his brother, who had recently died in the Troad. We do not know much about his brother, whom he mentions several times (also in poems 65 and 68) in his 116 poems, but it is clear from this beautiful threnody that he loved him a great deal.

Written in elegiac couplets (comprising a two line sequence of a 6 foot line followed by a 5 foot one), this poem has justly become famous for its depth of emotion and its stylistic elegance, all neatly fitting into a 10 line jewel of poetry. Unlike the bulk of Catullus's oeuvre, which has for its most common subjects love and sex, in all their heights and depths - from marriage hymns to scurrilous poems more appropriately adorning subway walls as graffiti - this poem simply expresses the poet's sadness in profoundly solemn tones, invoking, in almost ritualistic manner, the Roman funeral rites ("inferias" in the original) due the dead by family. Some scholars feel that it might have been inscribed on the tomb. The gifts mentioned would have been modest ones, e.g., wine, lentils, honey and flowers.

Although the translation above is antiquated, it nicely renders the Latin. Others abound, including the three I also prefer, listed below.

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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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The Illumination

Brockmeier, Kevin

Last Updated: Jun-28-2017
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Brockmeier constructed this novel as six individual stories. No overriding plot carries across all the stories, and none of the individual stories has much of a plot either. But, each is tangentially related to the subsequent story through a journal comprising love notes written daily by a husband to his wife that passes from one story to the next.  

I love the ball you curl into when you wake up in the morning but don’t want to get out from under the covers. I love the last question you ask me before bedtime. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs, but arrange the books by height. I love you in your blue winter coat that looks like upholstery fabric. I love the scent of your hair just after you’ve taken a shower… (p. 16)  

The stories share characters, but only insofar as they are involved in the transfer of the journal.  

Also connecting the stories is a phenomenon in which visible light is produced from the location of the body where there is pain, injury, or disease, and in one case an inanimate object—the journal. It just started to happen.  

The Illumination: who had coined the term, which pundit or editorial writer, no one knew, but soon enough—within hours, it seemed—that was what people were calling it. The same thing was happening all over the world. In hospitals and prison yards, nursing home and battered women’s shelters, wherever the sick and injured were found, a light could be seen flowing from their bodies. Their wounds were filled with it, brimming. (p. 138)  

The Illumination
is part of every story, but never the main subject. It’s noticed, it’s discussed, it’s contemplated, and eventually accommodated as part of daily existence:  “everyone began to accept that pain now came coupled together with light.” (p. 139) The Illumination is always there, was always there, and will always be there because “there is no such thing as photonic degradation, that light was effectively immortal, or at least as immortal as the universe itself.” (p. 256)

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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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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire is “a study of genius, mania, and character” of American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977).  It is meant to be neither an autobiography nor a critical study of Lowell’s literary output, but a study of an artist and his lifelong battle with Bipolar I Disorder, and an appreciation of how his art and illness were inseparably linked. The author, Kay Redfield Jamison, is a distinguished psychologist who has been quite open about her own struggles with the same disease, and whose lifework consists of exploring the link between Bipolar Disorder and creativity.     

Eschewing a purely chronological approach, Jamison divides her work into sections entitled “Origins,” “Illness,” “Character,” “Illness and Art,” and “Mortality.” In the first, she traces the history of mental illness within the poet’s illustrious Boston family.  We learn that Lowell’s great-great-grandmother was institutionalized at McLean Asylum for the Insane, which was to be the site of several of the poet’s own hospitalizations.  “Illness” is a clinical case study in prodromal childhood symptoms that progress to full-blown manic episodes. We follow the progress made by 20th century psychiatry from psychotherapy and ECT to Thorazine, and, finally, with the introduction of Lithium, to the possibility of prophylaxis against recurrences.
Later, in “Illness and Art,” Jamison brings her thoughts about creativity and art to full fruition by discussing what her research reveals about writers and artists.    

Appendices include diagnostic criteria for Bipolar Disorder, and an explanation of how Lowell’s psychiatric and medical records were made available by his daughter for the benefit of this volume.  

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Summary:

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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