Showing 21 - 30 of 209 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

Attending Others

Volck, Brian

Last Updated: Apr-11-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir of a life in medicine takes the writer from St. Louis to a Navajo reservation to Central America to the east coast and from urban hospitals to ill-equipped rural clinics. It offers a wide range of reflections on encounters with patients that widen and deepen his sense of calling and  understanding of what it means to do healing work.  He learns to listen to tribal elders, to what children communicate without words, to worried parents, and to his own intuition while calling on all the skills he acquired in a rigorous medical education.  Always drawn to writing, Volck takes his writing work (and play) as seriously as his medical practice, and muses on the role of writing in the medical life as he goes along.

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When Breath Becomes Air

Kalanithi, Paul

Last Updated: Feb-18-2016
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Paul Kalanithi, diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer when he was a neurosurgery resident at Stanford University, was faced with a decision. Should he truncate his career in neurosurgery in order to become a writer - a career he had always envisioned for himself after completing a couple of decades of neurosurgery practice? Married to Lucy Kalanithi, an internist he had met in medical school, Paul’s career and future had looked bright and promising. But as he entered his final year of a seven-year residency, symptoms of excruciating back pain and significant weight loss began. Garbed in a hospital gown, he examines his own CT scan – this is how we meet Paul at the beginning of the Prologue. He then writes of the relatively brief period of misdiagnosis prior to the CT scan. With the initial negative plain x-rays, he is started on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. But breakthrough pain and continued weight loss leads to the CT. Paul the physician understands the death sentence the images portend; Paul the patient is just beginning his journey. The diagnosis and treatment cause him to reassess his decisions about his life, to decide to father a child even though he knows he will never see the child grow up, and ultimately to write a memoir, essentially for his daughter.

Paul had graduated from Stanford with undergraduate and master’s degrees which reflected his dual love of literature and science. He combined these in a second master’s degree from Cambridge University in the history and philosophy of science and medicine before attending Yale for his medical degree. He and his wife return to California for residencies. The book is largely a blend of his dual interests: a deep and abiding love and faith in literature and how words can reveal truths, and a passion for the practice and science of neurosurgery. The rupture of fatal illness into his life interrupts his dogged trajectory towards an academic medical career, and, like all ruptures, confounds expectations and reorients priorities.

The book has five parts: a foreword by physician-writer Abraham Verghese, who notes the stunning prose Paul produced for an initial article in The New York Times and exhorts the reader to “Listen to Paul” (page xix); a brief prologue; two parts by Paul Kalanithi (Part I: In Perfect Health I Begin, and Part II: Cease Not till Death); and a stunning, heart-breaking epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi. In the epilogue, written with as many literary references and allusions as her husband’s writing includes, Lucy provides the reader with a gentle and loving portrait of her husband in his final days, reaffirms his joy in their daughter Cady, and chronicles how she kept her promise to her dying husband to shepherd his manuscript into print.

The bulk of the book is memoir – a childhood in Arizona and an aversion to pursuing a life in medicine due to his hard-working cardiologist-father, experiences at Stanford which eventually led him to reverse his decision to avoid a medical career, the stages of his medical career and caring for patients, and his devastating cancer. Though initially responsive to treatment—and indeed, the treatment enables him to complete his residency and decide to father a child with Lucy—the cancer is, as prognosticated from the diagnosis, fatal.

What makes this memoir so much more than an exercise in memory and a tribute to the herculean effort to write while sapped by cancer and its treatment, are the philosophical turns, the clear love of words and literature, and the poignancy of the writing. He begins reading fiction and nonfiction again: “I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language…I needed words to go forward.” (pp 148-9) Paul’s writing ends with what is arguably some of the most poetic prose ever written. He concludes by speaking directly to his infant daughter: “When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” (p. 199)

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The Death of Cancer

DeVita, Vincent

Last Updated: Feb-04-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The book offers a detailed account by one of the nation’s leading cancer researchers of developments in chemotherapy over the past several decades, as well as the recent history of surgical and radiation treatments in the “war on cancer”—a term he resisted at first but finally embraced with full understanding of its implications.  The narrative touches on many of the writer’s own struggles over economic, political, and moral implications of what a NYT reviewer described as a “take-no-prisoners” approach to cure.  He also includes stories about disagreements with other researchers that give some insight into the acrimony that is part of high-stakes science.  At the NIH and later as head of the National Cancer Institute, DeVita faced many decisions about distribution of resources, how much to put patients at risk, and whom to include in clinical trials.  He provides his own point of view on those controversies frankly.  Not much mention is made of the causes of cancer, of nutritional or other complementary approaches, or the environmental factors in the spread of cancer. The strong focus on the book is on the development of chemotherapeutic treatments that have succeeded in raising survival rates, though few current statistics are cited.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Kozol tells a multilayered story about himself and his father, a distinguished physician who becomes increasingly demented by Alzheimer’s disease, starting at age 88. A neurologist, Dr. Harry Kozol is able to diagnose with great specificity his own disease.     
          
Son Kozol describes his father’s initial symptoms and the slow decline, a direction that is sadly and fatefully, clear. The son goes on walks with him, describes their conversations, arranges for paid companions, and puzzles about what must be “a life beneath the life” of his progressively inarticulate father.
           

Over the 14 years of this illness, there are some medical mishaps—including problems in continuity of care—depletion of the family’s money, and Jonathan’s hesitation to use a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order for his father or for his aging mother. He writes of his doubts, uncertainties, and mixed emotions. When his father is actively dying, Kozol dawdles elsewhere with lists and papers “obsessively.” He understands this, in retrospect, as denial. Nevertheless he arrives at the hospital and places his ear on his father’s chest, hearing breaths come slower and slower until death. Dr. Kozol dies in 2008 at the age of 102.
           

Alternating with this story are long passages about Dr. Kozol’s professional life, including his work with Eugene O’Neill and family, also Patty Hearst and Albert DeSalvo (“The Boston Strangler”). For the latter two, he is an expert witness in court cases. These passages illustrate his many skills, tenacity, and ideals.

A 25-page Epilogue written a half a dozen years later casts a different light on the father-son relationship. While the bulk of the book shows a loving, respectful relationship, the Epilogue describes tensions and disagreements between the two from Jonathan’s childhood to later years. The father criticizes what he perceives as failures, lack of ambition, poor choices, and the like. Kozol describes his own illustrious career, often in directions his father disapproves. In later years, however, Kozol accepts some of his father’s advice and understands their status more as equals. In another seven years, however, Dr. Kozol’s mind starts its difficult path, and the son becomes the caregiver to the father.  

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Call the Midwife

Worth, Jennifer

Last Updated: Dec-15-2015
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Many are familiar with these stories from the author's practice as a midwife among the urban poor in London's East End in the 1950s.  Each piece stands alone as a story about a particular case. Many of them are rich with the drama of emergency interventions, birth in complicated families (most of them poor), home births in squalid conditions, and the efforts of midwives to improve public health services, sanitation, and pre- and post-natal care with limited resources in a city decimated by wartime bombings.  As a gallery of the different types of women in the Anglican religious order that housed the midwives and administered their services, and the different types of women who lived, survived, and even thrived in the most depressing part of London, the book provides a fascinating angle on social and medical history and women's studies.

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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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Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Blow, Charles

Last Updated: Oct-11-2015
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Blow’s account of growing up in rural Louisiana, exposed to negligence, sexual molestation, violence, and loss focuses on a child’s strategies of survival first, and then on sexual confusion, social ambition, and discovery of the gifts that led him to his life as a writer for the New York Times.  A major theme in the memoir is his learning to claim his bisexuality after years of secrecy and shame.  That emergent fact about his identity, along with moving to New York after a life in the rural South required an unusual level of self-reflection and hard, costly choices that challenged norms at every level.  His account of learning to assume a leadership role in a college fraternity and deciding to finally leave it behind offers a particularly vivid example of what it takes to resist perpetuating rites of humiliation and conformity designed to curb individuation.     

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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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