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This collection of 16 short stories focuses on doctors and patients in San Francisco, where a wide variety of wealth and culture impact the delivery of medical care. Further, there are many restrictions—financial, bureaucratic, ethical, and legal —that limit what doctors can do, especially in cases of patients near death.
The author, Louise Aronson, is a geriatrician who knows this terrain very well, having trained in San Francisco and worked as a physician there. A skilled writer and close observer, she has created dramatic and often funny stories that reveal social and bioethical complexity. About half the stories describe end-of-life issues for the aged and the dilemmas for their physicians and families.
In ‘The Promise,” Dr. Westphall orders comfort care only for an elderly patient who has suffered a massive stroke, but a hospital gives full treatment because there was no advance directive and the daughter told the attending to do “what he thought best.”
When Dr. Westphall sees this barely functioning patient in a skilled nursing facility seven months later, he tenderly washes her face and hair—although the text teases us that he might have been prepared to kill her.
In “Giving Good Death,” a doctor is in jail charged with murder; he has fulfilled the request of Consuela, a Parkinson’s patient, to help her die. When it appears that she may have died for other reasons, he is released, his life “ruined.” He leaves San Francisco, and, we surmise, medicine. In three other stories, doctors also leave the profession: the cumulative stresses of work and family and/or a sense that it’s not the right path bring them to that choice.
On the other hand, one of the longer pieces “Becoming a Doctor” celebrates the profession, despite all the rigors of training including sexism against women.
The stories bring multicultural insights; we read of people from China, Cambodia, Latin America, India, Russia, and the Philippines. Some are African-American; some Jewish, some gay. These different backgrounds color notions of health, death, and medical care. There are also pervasive issues of poverty and, at another extreme, professionalism that is hyper-rational and heartless.
Indeed, a recurring theme is care and love for people, no matter their background or current health status. A surgeon realizes (regrettably too late) that the secret of medical care is “caring for the patient—for anyone—just a little. Enough, but not too much” (p. 135).
Summary:This book describes San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, where Victoria Sweet worked as a doctor for 20 years. In the tradition of the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris (literally “God’s Hotel”), Laguna Honda cares for the sickest and poorest patients, many staying there indefinitely because there is no alternative for them. Sweet learns from her long experience at Laguna Honda that “Slow Medicine” has benefits, that a holistic or unified view of patients works best, and that the reductionism and specialization of modern medicine has limitations and costs. During these years Sweet becomes fascinated by the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen and earns a Ph.D. focusing on medieval medicine. At the same time (and increasingly) various forces—economic, legal, political, bureaucratic—cause many changes at Laguna Honda, mostly contrary to Sweet’s vision of medicine.
Part history, part memoir, part social criticism, the book is informative, entertaining, and important for its discussion of the care of our least-well-off citizens and for its perspectives on modern, Western medicine.
There are three intertwining strands to this engaging book: Sweet’s medical evolution as a physician, the changes in Laguna Honda, and her investigations of Hildegard of Bingen and other spiritual matters.
Sweet joins up with Laguna Honda initially for only two months, but she finds the hospital and her work there so fascinating that she stays for 20 years. As an almshouse, Laguna Honda takes care of indigent patients, most with complicated medical conditions, including mental illness and dependencies on alcohol and/or drugs. Many of these cases come from the County Hospital with continuing (but not carefully reviewed) drug treatments. Every 15 or 20 pages, Sweet describes the dilemmas of a particular patient, and her medical (and personal) attention to that patient. The cases are vivid and instructive.
Clearly Laguna Honda is a major figure on the book; we can even consider it (or “her”) a beloved character and a teacher to the young Dr. Sweet, who learns three principles from her work there: hospitality, community, and charity.
Because Laguna Honda is old-fashioned in many ways, Sweet reads her own X-rays, goes the to lab to see results, and spends large amounts of time with each patient. Laguna Honda has an aviary, a farm with barnyard, and a solarium; such features help to heal the whole person. While respectful of modern medicine, Sweet slowly learns that a careful review of a patient through Slow Medicine is more accurate and more cost-efficient than standard, reductionist, high-tech medicine. She comes to respect approaches from “premodern” medicine, including that of Hippocrates and Hildegard.
The second strand is the evolution of Laguna Honda itself. Sweet describes a variety of pressures: the recommendations of consulting firms, rulings from the Department of Justice, a lawsuit, financial difficulties (including fiscal mismanagement), administrators focused on a narrow concept of efficiency, a utilization review board, forms and more forms, and a pervasive sense that modern (including Evidence Based Medicine) is always good. All these and more create a “relentless pressure squeezing the hospital’s Old Medicine into the New Health Care” (p. 322). Sweet demonstrates that her Slow Medicine can actually save money in the long run. Confident that her way is better, she proposes an “ecomedicine unit” that she would match against the modern, “efficient” units in a two-year experiment. (For more information on her concept of ecomedicine proposal, see http://www.victoriasweet.com/.)
As the hospital is “modernized,” many important features of the old place are gone and many “new and improved” aspects don’t work. Somehow there are no rooms for physicians in the new building while there is plenty of space for administrators and managers. A sophisticated computer system doesn’t work. Sweet doesn’t say “I told you so” directly, but we get the picture.
The third strand is Sweet’s investigations of spirituality and pilgrimage. She is fascinated by Hildegard’s notions of the healing power of nature, the ability of the body to heal itself, and wholeness as an aim for a person and for a community. Sweet attends a Swiss conference on Hildegard. She hikes the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela in four installments and considers notions of pilgrimage. She feels called to pursue her ecomedicine project and to write this book.
By the end of the book, both Sweet and Laguna Honda have changed and are now headed in different directions.
Summary:Dr. Jennifer White, age 64, is read her rights in a Chicago police station. But how much does the retired orthopedist who specializes in hand surgery really understand? Dr. White has Alzheimer's dementia. Her score of 19 on a mini-mental state examination (MMSE) is consistent with a moderate degree of cognitive impairment. She is questioned about the death of a neighbor, 75-year-old Amanda O'Toole, who lives 3 houses away. Amanda happens to be Dr. White's best friend and the godmother of her daughter. Amanda died at home, the result of head trauma. Four fingers of her right hand were cleanly and expertly chopped off. It seems that Dr. White is genuinely incapable of recalling whether she committed a murder or not. The physician is not charged with the crime but remains a suspect.
Mija, a 66 year-old woman, is raising her daughter's grumpy teenaged son and trying to make ends meet with a part-time job as a maid for an elderly, wealthy man who has suffered a stroke.
Summary:On July 5, 1998, physics Professor Alan Cromer suffered a heart attack on a plane, and survived after almost an hour of resuscitation efforts, but sustained brain injury from lack of oxygen. In this chronicle of caregiving, his wife, a psychiatric nurse by training, gives a very personal, detailed account of the radical adaptations his disability required of both of them. Her story includes reflection on his and her own emotional adjustments to loss of parity in communication and awareness, practical adjustments to physical limitations, and social adjustments to family, friends and professional colleagues.
Summary:As explained in the succinct yet thorough introduction by co-editor Kimberly Myers, an international conference on the topic of "The Patient" was convened at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in 2006. This collection of essays, which range from personal experience to scholarly literary critique, results from the conference presentations.
Summary:As the story opens, Sage Priestly, 17, is running for class president against Mona, whose popularity Sage finds both threatening, fascinating, and a matter that keeps her in a state of uncomfortable envy. In her efforts to "be Mona," Sage undertakes a drastic diet, changes her haircolor, and focuses all her leisure dream time on Roger--a boy she can't see is incipiently abusive, though her long-time friend, Vern, loves her in a healthy and faithful way--a love that is tested when Sage starts dating Roger and suffering actual physical abuse. As we learn about her troubled social life, we also learn that at home Sage is a caregiver for her single mother whose bipolar disorder and depression pose a huge and confusing challenge to the teenage daughter. Vern's parents eventually intervene to help both Sage and her mother get appropriate care and oversight, and Sage begins to recognize in Vern (and his gay friend Walter, who has suffered his own social challenges) the kind of friend that will last. The book includes an afterword in which the author provides a note from personal experience on bipolar disorder (one of her parents was bipolar) and abuse, and lists helpful resources.
Summary:Holding Our Own: Embracing the End of Life is a documentary film that shows aging and dying as anything but morbid, and death as the final healing in the hospice way. Art and music are combined as a way to bring people into a subject that they'd rather resist.
Summary:This groundbreaking international film documents the positive impact of art and other creative activities on people with Alzheimer's disease. The film's intention is to change the way we look at the disease. It does just that. Brilliantly.
Summary:As Audrey Young describes her process of becoming a compassionate internist in a besieged public hospital, she simultaneously argues for turning the hospital's patient care and financial practices into a model for improving health care in America. Young, a compelling storyteller, first entered Seattle's Harborview Medical Center in 1996 as a third-year medical student on trauma surgery service. She completed a residency there in general internal medicine and stayed on as an attending for six more years. She stayed, she tells us, because she met physicians "committed to a vision of equality" who were "the sort of people I hoped to become" (xiii). She also "fell in love" with "the story of a unique place" (xiii). Young's stories of that often chaotic place, where ambulances regularly transport homeless, indigent, addicted, and mentally ill refugees from neighboring private hospitals, emphasizes the ways the Harborview staff manages to treat patients with dignity and to choose an ethic of hope in the face of dire circumstances.