Showing 21 - 30 of 202 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

An Unquiet Mind

Jamison, Kay Redfield

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The author, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is an authority on manic depressive illness. With this powerful, well-written memoir she "came out of the closet," publicly declaring that she herself had suffered from manic depressive illness for years. Jamison describes the manifestations of her illness, her initial denial and resistance to treatment with medication, attempted suicide, and her struggle to maintain an active professional and satisfying personal life.The author was "intensely emotional as a child," (p.4) and in high school first experienced "a light lovely tincture of true mania" (p.37) during which she felt marvelous, but following which she was unable to concentrate or comprehend, felt exhausted, preoccupied with death, and frightened. (pp. 36-40) Interested in medicine as an adolescent, she pursued her goal in spite of mood swings and periods of mental paralysis. Jamison completed graduate work in clinical psychology; shortly after obtaining a faculty appointment "I was manic beyond recognition and just beginning a long, costly personal war against a medication that I would, in a few year’s time, be strongly encouraging others to take [lithium]." (p. 4)Jamison eventually, through strong support from friends and colleagues, excellent psychiatric care, and her own acceptance of illness, has been able to reach a state of relative equilibrium--tolerable levels of medication (fewer side effects) and dampened mood swings. But she makes clear that she must stay on lithium and remain vigilant.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Matthew McCarthy begins his memoir of medicine internship year at Columbia University with a glimpse into his first rotation, surgery, as a Harvard medical student. He had exhibited a talent for surgery and liked it – an affinity compatible with his dexterity as a minor league baseball player and sense of team spirit. The reader meets some of McCarthy’s memorable mentors, and, although he opts to not pursue surgery as a career, McCarthy’s eye for seeking productive apprenticeships with talented housestaff and faculty allow him to guide the reader through a year of drinking from the firehose, also known as internship. Medical training is full of liminal experiences, and internship is one the most powerful and transformative.  

McCarthy’s eagerness to do well, both by his patients and by his medical colleagues and team, and his candor with revealing his mental and bodily responses to the stress and strain of the responsibilities of internship, make him an adept guide. For example, he has gulped an iced coffee and is churning at the bit to take care of a new admission on his first day of call in the cardiac care unit (CCU). His resident, called Baio in the book, tries to tell McCarthy to take it easy. But McCarthy notes, “Our orientation leaders, a peppy group of second- and third year residents, had instructed us to exude a demented degree of enthusiasm at all times, which wasn’t difficult now that my blood was more caffeine than hemoglobin.” (p 15) The previous chapter had ended with a cliffhanger – a patient life would be placed in danger because neophyte McCarthy misses the importance of a key clinical finding – what and how that plays out will wait until McCarthy guides us through the terror and exhilaration he feels as he begins his CCU rotation.  

McCarthy has a good sense of the ironic: the huge banner advertising the hospital reads “Amazing Things are Happening Here!” Indeed, not only for patients and families, but also for the many trainees and workers. We watch McCarthy successfully perform his first needle decompression of a pneumothorax; he is allowed to attempt it as he notes that he watched the video of the procedure. But unlike the video, he needs to readjust the needle several times and add on some additional tubing and water trap, which makes the scenario more true-to-life than a fictionalized ‘save.’ The author ends the chapter with congratulations from resident Baio: “Well done… Amazing things are indeed happening here.” (p 244) As McCarthy’s year continues, many things do happen, including an infected needle stick, telling bad news to a new widow, and developing a friendship with a longterm hospital patient waiting for a heart transplant.

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Since Joy Davidman is known to most readers as the woman C.S. Lewis married late in life and lost to cancer four years after that marriage, it is likely that many readers will pick up Joy Davidman’s letters out of fondness for her husband’s Narnia stories or popular theology.  They will quickly find that the letters chronicle a life of considerable interest in itself.  Davidman was an award-winning writer herself, a secular Jew and atheist who turned hopefully to communism and then wholeheartedly to Christianity in her later years, though remaining skeptical—and acerbic—about church people.  The fact that she remained friends with her first husband after their difficult marriage broke up resulted in many of the letters in the collection, which include material Lewis fans will be glad to see, though it offers little intimate information about their lives except that they were devoted to one another through her painful final years with breast cancer.  Her account of that last illness is often matter-of-fact; she writes as though it is one of the less interesting parts of her life, which was full of intellectual pursuits, including editing some of Lewis’s later works, and of practical concerns that included caring for her two boys with whom she emigrated to England from New York.  

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A bicycling, bee-keeping, British neurosurgeon approaching the end of his professional career recalls some distinctive patients, surgical triumphs as well as notable failures, difficult decisions, and mistakes. Nearly thirty years of a busy neurosurgical practice are distilled into a collection of linked stories throbbing with drama - both the flamboyant kind and the softly simmering type.

Most chapters are titled after a medical condition (exceptions are "Hubris" and "Melodrama"). Some of the headings are familiar - Trauma, Infarct, Aneurysm, Meningioma. Other chapter titles flaunt delicious medical terminology that mingles the mysterious and the poetic with nomenclature such as Angor animi, Neurotmesis, Photopsia, and Anaesthesia dolorosa.

Included are riveting accounts of both mundane and seemingly miraculous patient outcomes. One success story involves a pregnant woman losing her sight due to a brain tumor that compresses the optic nerves. Her vision is restored with an operation performed by the author. Her baby is born healthy too. But tales of failure and loss - malignant glioblastomas that are invulnerable to any treatment, operative calamities including bleeding of the brain, paralysis, and stroke - are tragically common. The author describes his humanitarian work in the Ukraine. He admits his aggravation with hospital bureaucracy and is frequently frustrated by England's National Health Service.

Sometimes the shoe falls on the other foot, and the doctor learns what it is to be a patient. He suffers a retinal detachment. He falls down some stairs and fractures his leg. His mother succumbs to metastatic breast cancer. His three month old son requires surgery for a benign brain tumor.

As his career winds down, the author grows increasingly philosophical. He acknowledges his diminishing professional detachment, his fading fear of failure, and his less-hardened self. He becomes a sort of vessel for patients to empty their misery into. He is cognizant of the painful privilege it is to be a doctor.

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Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Although Dr. Helman’s untimely death did not permit a final editing by this prodigious writer, the published edition is not a book-in-progress. An Amazing Murmur of the Heart: Feeling the Patient’s Beat represents a powerful and persistent continuation of observations and themes that grew out of medical education, close observations of physicians and patients, and his studies in anthropology. All of these forge an approach to patient care that is out of the ordinary.  

As his previous writings suggest, Helman is passionate about medicine but concerned, equally about the emergence of those who fail to listen and to those who might be called techno-doctors.  While professing his appreciation of and attraction to the magic machine or computer, he is mindful of its absence of emotion and ambiguity.  “For this post-human body is one that exists mainly in abstract, immaterial form.  It is a body that has become pure information.” (p. 11)

Chapters are comprised of stories about patients and their care providers, each representing complex facets that defy precise measurement, answers and conclusions.  As Helman steadily notes, the physician must be an archeologist:

Most patients present their doctors with only the broken shards of human life—the one labeled infection, disease, suffering and pain each of these shards is only a small part of a much larger picture….the doctor will have to try and reconstruct the rest. (p.66)

In general, the chapters illustrate first an initial review of medical history, and then specific patient stories.  Of the two, the story is most important.  “Mask of Skin,” for example, begins with an overview of skin from Vesalius to the present: largest organ, stripped bare by anatomists, penetrated by disease, later scanned and X-Rayed, tattooed, re-fitted by surgeons, etc.   That said, Helman the physician-anthropologist, moves from science to specific stories about patients whose skin may cover profound experiences, psychic and otherwise, that might be overlooked by a dermatologist.   Although skin is involved in each of that chapter’s stories, the willing physician must dig deeper in his observations and caring manner to make more profound discoveries.      

In a chapter entitle “Healing and Curing” the author describes an old friend, a practitioner who provides advice about patient care that ”was not included in his medical texts”.  Patients are more than a diagnosis dressed in clothes.  Doctors must make patients “feel seen, listened to, alive”.  Always patients should be regarded as people who happen to be sick.  From his admired colleague Helman learned to be an attentive listener  to the "tiny, trivial, almost invisible things" in patient encounters and stories. To truly heal as well as cure requires the doctor to empathise with what the patient is feeling thereby requiring both an act of imagination and of the heart.  The chapter, of course, continues with with stories that illustrate the points enunciated by his colleague and accepted by his disciple. 

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In the course of sharing her own experience of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, the writer offers personal reflections on coping with each of a number of specific challenges most American women with breast cancer face:  desperation, fear, sadness, anger, guilt, overwhelming choices about treatment, side-effects of treatment, grief, adjusting to a new "normal," shifts in relationship, and rethinking spirituality.  She raises hard questions in a compassionate way, encouraging readers to use the experience of illness as an occasion for examining and growing into a new phase of psycho-spiritual maturity.

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Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir

Weber, Doron

Last Updated: Feb-10-2014
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Damon Weber's proud father, Doron, has written a searing memoir that enfolds a story of parental love and loss into a medical exposé. By the time Damon turned four, he had two open-heart surgeries to correct a congenital malformation that affected circulation to his lungs. His parents were led to believe that after the surgeries, their effervescent, sociable, academically and artistically talented son was set for life. However, as Damon turned 12, they became concerned about what his father calls "his unsprung height," his shortness of breath, and a strange protrusion in his abdomen (40). Returning to his attending physician, they were surprised that she withheld information from them about a condition known as PLE (protein-losing entropy), which can manifest months or years after the kind of surgery (Fontan) their son underwent. PLE enlarges the liver and allows proteins to leak from the intestines. Without adequate protein, Damon's body could not grow. His father worried that they might have passed the established window of opportunity to treat the complication.

The memoir, which reads like an extended eulogy to a beloved son, fuses scenes of family life with difficult medical decisions aimed at reversing the effects of PLE. However, none of the interventions succeed, leaving a heart transplant as Damon's last hope. As Weber recounts each decision leading to the transplant, he exposes flaws in the way hospital systems operate, in the way families are treated, and in the care provided by the medical team that lobbied to perform the transplant. Damon died after his transplant physician made herself scarce after misdiagnosing a post-operative complication, and an inattentive hospital staff ignored his parents' justifiable alerts to ominous symptoms. Scenes of the hospital staff waiting impatiently at the door to Damon's room to remove the machines sustaining and monitoring him, as his distraught parents say good-bye, are disturbing. When the Webers initiate a lawsuit, the transplant physician cannot locate Damon's medical records. The narrative fully absorbs Weber's sorrow and anger.

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This essay concerns a very unusual man, Washington Woodward, whom Donald Hall met as a young boy during his summers in New Hampshire and came to know even more from the tales he heard from his grandfather. Abandoned at age 6, Washington grew up on the author’s grandparents’ farm until age 12 when his “lazy and mean” father reclaimed him. Running away 4 years later, Washington began the highly eccentric life limned in this poetic mini-biography.

“Eccentric” probably does not do justice to Washington’s style, habits, skills, and foibles. He was entirely self-sufficient, from his clothes to his food - much of which he hunted or grew - to his handmade machines, including a complicated boulder-moving contraption designed to clear the way for cows, not humans. Washington could repair almost anything, from an outhouse to a baseball bat to a mowing machine.

The range of his skills is impressive by anyone’s standards, not just a 21st century reader: “I knew him to shoe a horse, install plumbing, dig a well, make a gun, build a road, lay a dry stone wall, do the foundation and frame of a house, invent a new kind of trap for beavers, manufacture his own shotgun shells, grind knives, and turn a baseball bat on a lathe” (page 23), reminding this reader of a similar passage about Nate Shaw in Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers. Living the life of a hermit most of the time on Ragged Mountain, New Hampshire, Washington spent a great deal of his life with his beloved animals: Phoebe the pet Holstein and Old Duke the ox, whom he taught to shake hands and roll over.

The nails? Washington would gather stray nails he found in boards or discovered on walks, and take them back to his hut where he would straighten them and store them. Why? “He saved the nails because it was a sin to allow good material to go to waste.” (page 26)

He died in a state nursing home, a month after a visit by the author and his grandfather.


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A Diary Without Dates

Bagnold, Enid

Last Updated: Oct-24-2013
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

"A Diary Without Dates" is Enid Bagnold's World War I memoir of her experiences over roughly a year and a half as a member of the V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment), or what we would today call a nurse's aide. Assisting the Sisters (both lay and religious nurses), the author attended to the day-to-day (mostly non-clinical) needs of wounded soldiers (almost entirely British) recovering from often horrific wounds in the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich, 8 miles southeast of London. These poor men often stayed in the Royal Herbert for many months. It is a slim volume which the author wrote at the age of 28 and published in 1918. Divided into three arbitrary divisions ("Outside the Glass Doors", "Inside the Glass Doors", "'The Boys ...'") of roughly equal content (the last devotes, on the whole, more detail to individual "Tommies", referred to as "The Boys"), the book recounts the author's observations and fairly critical views of the relationships between nurses, physicians, V.A.D's, and visitors. Apparently the book was not well received by war authorities, leading to Bagnold's dismissal from her position.

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Open Heart

Wiesel, Elie

Last Updated: Feb-01-2013

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Elie Wiesel, 82-years-old, has pain that he thinks is in his stomach or esophagus, perhaps caused by his chronic acid reflux.  After tests, however, doctors diagnose cardiac illness and insist on immediate surgery. Reluctant to go to the hospital, Wiesel dawdles in his office. When he does go, doctors believe a stent will do the job. Instead, the intervention becomes a quintuple bypass.

This brief memoir—a scant 8,000 words—presents the “open heart” of a gifted writer as he contemplates his open-heart surgery, his past life, and the future. He asks himself basic, even primal questions about life, death, and the nature of God.            

Although a man with an extraordinary career—prizes, fame, honorary doctorates, friends in high places, professorships—Wiesel experiences and describes ordinary feelings of anxiety, pain, and doubts about his cardiac emergency and possible death. His stylistic gifts describe frankly and vividly a patient’s fears. As many have observed, patients with a serious disease have two difficulties, the disease itself and their emotional responses to that disease.  As Wiesel is wheeled into the OR, he looks back on his wife and son; he wonders whether he will ever see them again.            

He writes that his “thoughts jump wildly; I am disoriented.” He recalls a friend undergoing similar surgery; she died on the table. He says he can’t follow the jargon of physicians. The texture of the prose is rhapsodic, jumping from the present to memories, many of them about war, his past surgeries, or important family events. This short book has 26 “chapters,” some just half a page; they are like journal entries.

As he slowly recovers, he feels pain and has visions of hell, including the concept of ultimate judgment. “Evidently, I have prayed poorly…; otherwise why would the Lord, by definition just and merciful, punish me in this way?” (p. 38).  Because he has a “condemned body,” he feels he must search his soul. In the longest chapter of the book, he reviews several of his writings.

Wiesel asks some of the questions from his famous novel Night (La nuit, 1958).  If there is a God, why is there evil? Auschwitz, he says, is both a human tragedy and “a theological scandal” (p. 67). Nonetheless, he affirms, “Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers” (p. 69).

At the end, he still has some pain but feels much gratitude for his continuing active life and for his grandchildren.

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