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When Jamie Heywood, the eldest of three brothers in a tight New England family of engineers, learns that his middle brother Stephen (they all are in their 20’s at the outset of this drama which begins, for them, in early 1998) has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he has just assumed the position of entrepreneur in technology transfer at Gerald Edelman’s Neurosciences Institute, the prestigious think tank of the 1972 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine, in La Jolla, California.
Jamie quickly announces his resignation and simultaneously his decision to devote his life to helping his brother in the only way he can--as manager, CEO, COO and staff of, initially, a loosely organized team effort to develop a cure for ALS, an insidious wasting disease of the nervous system that progressively leaves the person with the merest remnants of voluntary motor function.
Jamie’s resignation and his move from the West to East coast is but the mildest of changes in the weather for what becomes a perfect storm of technology recruiting, fund-raising, career-rebuilding and the emotional equivalents of El Niño, profoundly affecting at least four families, three of them Heywoods: Stephen Heywood, the strapping carpenter/house-restorer with ALS, and his wife, Wendy; Jamie, and Melinda, his belly-dancing wife with a PhD in medieval French literature; the brothers’ mother, Peggy, and father, John; and, lastly, the author and his father, Jerome, and mother, Ponnie (a Polish diminutive).
Concomitant with Stephen’s development of ALS, Ponnie begins to evidence the dementia of Steele-Richardson-Olszewski syndrome, also known as progressive supranuclear palsy, a form of brain decay uncannily similar to ALS. (Fortunately for the Heywoods, ALS involves only the motor nerves, not the cognitive apparatus.)
The author’s decision to include his family’s ordeal is wise, generous and instructive. The Heywoods and Weiners are both engineering families with an academic engineer as the pater familias and both are trying their best to cope with a deteriorating illness that dismantles the center of all cerebral engineering activity, the brain. The comparison of the diseases and the responses of all the players involved are culturally and psychologically dissected with the author’s trademark precision and kindness. But this book, as the title indicates, is more about the keeper than the brother.
Within minutes of his learning of Stephen’s diagnosis, Jamie becomes a man possessed. He moves quickly, as though by intuition and almost a fated skill, from technology transfer to technology-bricolage; genetic therapy on the fly; and people-, funding- and support-transfer. In fact, when there is no transfer involved, Jamie creates in order to transfer.
Like Gregor Samsa, in the short story by Franz Kafk, from whom Weiner also deftly borrows another parable, "An Imperial Message," (to illustrate, metaphorically, the pathophysiology of ALS as a disease in which neural messages, like the Imperial Message, go awry), Jamie undergoes a metamorphosis, albeit admittedly much less drastic than Gregor’s. He molts his undergraduate degree in engineering at MIT to emerge as a self-appointed manager of any and all ALS research and gene therapy in the U.S. that might help retard the progress of his brother’s illness.
Recruiting, petitioning, nourishing, cajoling, funding, and courting researchers and clinicians alike, Jamie meets, entertains, enlists and co-ordinates the efforts of gene therapy researchers and other medical scientists. He becomes a fund-raiser with the help of Melinda and her family of belly dancers, raising $240,000 as a result of the First Annual Belly Dance Extravaganza. His efforts involve the Heywood and Weiner family members, as epicentric waves of activity inevitably affect them all.
We watch, through Weiner’s eyes (and the diaries of Wendy and Melinda, whom he cites with permission), as the four families experience the predictable mood shifts that accompany a devastating illness and the great adventure of a risky attempt to work a miracle (a miracle that Jerome E. Groopman grumpily and stuffily bemoans in a cited Wall Street Journal editorial): excitement when a genetically engineered ALS mouse outlives its cohorts and money starts to flow; and disillusionment, when Stephen’s disease relentlessly progresses, Jamie’s marriage dissolves for a lack of boundaries, as Melinda, Jamie’s wife, records in her diary, and the author’s mother slips deeper into a dementia that Lucretius, Weiner’s authorial inspiration of the book, would easily recognize as part of the world explored in his famous treatise De Rerum Natura.
By the end of the book, there is an air of exhaustion yet surprising calm--perhaps the calm after the storm--as we witness the normalcy of Stephen, in his motorized wheelchair, playing with his son. As Stephen repeatedly affirms to Weiner, now a family friend and no longer merely a reporter, "I’m fine."
Dr. Lois Ramondetta was a fellow in gynecologic oncology at M. D. Anderson Hospital in 1998 when she met Deborah Rose Sills, a professor of comparative religion, who had undergone surgery for ovarian cancer the year before and was re-admitted for small bowel obstruction. Ramondetta and Sills "clicked," and their relationship developed over several years from doctor-and-patient to close friendship and eventually co-authorship of this memoir. The women tell separate stories (Sills's are in italics), which interact more and more as the relationship progresses. Ramondetta writes about marriage to a medical classmate, its rapid unraveling under the stresses of residency, her infant daughter, and the complexities of her life as a single mother. Sills' sections tell of a highly regarded professor accepting a life with cancer, but struggling against reinterpreting herself as sick. Some of their interactions take place at MD Anderson Hospital, as Sills returns for a bone marrow transplant and later for management of recurrences and complications.
Their friendship also blossoms at their respective homes in Houston and Santa Barbara. Among the stories they share is that of Ramondetta's courtship and marriage to a local disk jockey, and the rock-solid support of Sills's family. In addition, they begin to collaborate, first on a lecture and then on an academic paper about spirituality and ovarian cancer. This dialogue eventually leads to the book itself, completed only after Sills's death in 2006.
Summary:After several years as a firefighter, Paul Austin decided to return to school and become a doctor. Both his training as firefighter and a somewhat late start at medical school gave him an unusual perspective on his selected specialty-emergency medicine. The book chronicles a wide variety of surprises, learning moments, and challenges from his years in the emergency room. These are interspersed with vignettes about the interrupted home life of an emergency physician rotating into night duty three to four times a month. The pace is lively and the stories confessional in the best sense-rich with reflection on what he has learned, often at great cost to his resilient wife and three children, one with Down syndrome. A strong theme in the book is the importance of developing strategies for sustaining humanity and compassion even under intense pressure to be quick, clinical, and detached.
Summary:A Place Called Canterbury by social historian Dudley Clendinen, former New York Times national correspondent and editorial writer, provides readers with an intimate and revealing account of aging in a particular place at a particular time--Canterbury Tower in Tampa, Florida. The story about the author's mother, Bobbie--and so many others--begins in 1994, a few years after the death of James Clendinen, Bobbie's husband of 48 years, and known to the community as the progressive editor of the Tampa Tribune. Although she had been "falling apart, a piece here, a piece there...collapsing vertebrae...bent, frail, and crooked...subject to spells and little strokes...." (p. xii),
In the prologue to "The Anatomist" author Bill Hayes explains why he undertook the task of writing a biography of the author of the famous illustrated textbook "Gray's Anatomy." The reasons stem from his childhood and are multifold: an early interest in becoming a doctor, a fascination with religious (particularly Catholic) and artistic perspectives of the body coupled with an acceptance of his own homosexuality, a growing admiration for the writing and drawing in his bargain table copy of "Gray's Anatomy," and finally an attraction to a photograph of the enigmatic author in his anatomy lab - one of the few traceable artifacts of the man himself. Hence "The Anatomist" is not only a meticulous and fascinating biography of Henry Gray, the writer, and Henry V. Carter, the illustrator of "Gray's Anatomy," but also a memoir of the education and life of Bill Hayes himself during the period of research and writing this book. The book is a masterful mix of the history of medicine, anatomy education both current and historic, methodology of historical research, and poignant, insightful commentary on the frailties of human bodies and human relationships.
Hayes took three anatomy courses at University of California, San Francisco during the preparation of the book - one with pharmacy students, one with physical therapy students, and the final one with medical students. By the third course, Hayes was a pro at dissection and had first hand knowledge and appreciation of the skills needed to be an anatomist.
Because of the paucity of information available on Henry Gray, the bulk of the research rests on the diaries and letters of the tireless, self-critical and amazingly skilled younger member of the book's creative team - the artist-physician Henry Carter. Through Carter's diaries we learn of the formidable genius of Gray, his academic accomplishments, the genesis of the idea for the book, and Gray's early death at age 34.
Interestingly, in a pattern similar to that of Andreas Vesalius's "De Humani Corporis Fabrica," whose illustrator was most likely Jan Stephen van Calcar, the artist Carter receives scant reward or acknowledgement of his vast contributions to the book. Hayes's biography rectifies this hundred-and-fifty-year-old omission by tracking not only the career of Gray, but also Carter. Indeed, peppered throughout "The Anatomist" are more illustrations than quotes from "Gray's Anatomy."
Summary:Body of Work is a cleverly crafted memoir - or, rather, the first chapter of a memoir - of the author's medical school experience at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island. Ms Montross relates the chronological course of her team's dissection of a female cadaver with no discernible umbilicus and whom they therefore name Eve. (She neglects to comment on Eve's ribs and whether she has the normal complement or a supernumerary, more masculine, rib.) As she and her team of four (later three as one student drops out of school) proceed with the orderly dismantling of Eve, bone by bone, nerve by nerve and blood vessel by blood vessel, she uses this experience as a springboard to analyze her and her team's emotional reactions to the often unnatural process of deconstructing, literally (at times with a saw), a former person now cadaver, as well as the gradual, almost imperceptible acculturation that transmogrifies medical students into doctors. In fact, she devotes the final pages to this metamorphosis and what it means to the person undergoing the transition from caring student to detached physician, and whether one can retain enough caring, while remaining sufficiently detached to function as one must as a clinician, to become both a whole person and competent physician: "How much of becoming a doctor demands releasing the well-known and well-loved parts of my self?" (page 209)
In A Step from Death a profusion of memories radiate from a near-fatal accident on Larry Woiwoide's farm in western North Dakota. Woiwode, a novelist and poet of America's heartland, had just finished baling hay when his denim jacket got caught in the tractor's power take-off, "a geared stub at the rear of the tractor that spins at 500 rpm." (p. 9) Caught in the powerful machine with no one around to hear his cries for help, Woiwode could easily have died, but survived by using his pocket knife to free himself from the jacket.
In a sense A Step from Death takes up where the author's previous memoir, What I Think I Did, leaves off. The earlier book focuses on surviving North Dakota's outrageously bitter winter of 1996-97. The current memoir ranges far and wide over nearly 40 years of Woiwode's life as a writer who chooses a difficult but fulfilling life for himself and his family on the land. The memoir is addressed to Woiwode's only son Joseph (the second of four children), with whom he shares his fatherly failures, as well as the strengths of their relationship. The reader soon learns that accidents were no strangers to their life on the northern plains. Woiwode and his wife and older daughter had survived a serious car accident on an icy road in one of their early Dakota winters. Joseph, too, sustained severe injuries as a child when he fell off a horse and again later in a tractor accident. On another occasion, Joseph and his sisters are responsible for accidentally causing a fire that burned down the family barn.
Now, however, Joseph is a married man, a helicopter pilot, with two children of his own. The recollections and wisdom that his father shares with him (and us) flow freely, creating a free associational, rather than linear, narrative. Woiwode explores the deep network of connections that bind him to the land and his family, as well as to the community of creative writers and especially William Maxwell, his long-time editor at The New Yorker, mentor, and father figure. Woiwode explores as well the strong pull of loss in his life-his parents' deaths and eventually that of Maxwell-but A Step from Death is ultimately a celebration of survival.
The Glass Castle, a gripping memoir about growing up devastatingly poor in America, opens with this first line: "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster." (p. 3) Jeanette Walls slinks down in the taxi's back seat and returns to her Park Avenue apartment. A few days later, she manages to contact her homeless mother and take her out for dinner, offering her help, yet again. But her mother refuses, and when asked what Jeannette is supposed to say about her parents, her mother replies "Just tell the truth...[t]hat's simple enough." (p.5) And with these words, Walls launches into the history of her upbringing, with all the deprivations, suffering, joys, shame, exasperations, tribulations and sorrows - the story of the Rex and Rose Mary Walls' family.
Rex Walls is an alcoholic and dreamer, his wife an artist and egoist; both are psychotically blind to the basic needs of their four children. Yet the parents do feed the children with love and intellectual stimulation, managing to keep the family unit intact while the children figure out how to survive. The reader first meets the child Jeannette at age three when she is on fire, cooking hot dogs on the stove in a trailer park, completely unsupervised. She requires multiple skin grafts but enjoys the regularity of hospital food, until six weeks later her father abducts her from the hospital in the first of a series of "skedaddles" that the reader learns is the way Rex Walls stays ahead of bill collectors and other authorities.
At each miserable turn, the reader wonders if things can get any worse. They do. The family winds up living in a rotting hut without plumbing in the coal mining town of Welch, West Virginia. Rex steals money from his children, Rose Mary buys herself art books instead of food for the family. The kids eat garbage they secretly remove from trash bins at school.
But finally, one by one, the kids do escape, although, like everyone, they carry the past within them. To varying degrees, each is scarred. Nonetheless, Jeannette works her way through Barnard in New York City and becomes a contributor to MSNBC. Ultimately the book is a tribute to the gutsy resilience of some remarkable individuals.
Summary:Cancer Vixen is the graphic narrative of Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s eleven-month cancer experience in 2004. Marchetto, a successful forty-something cartoonist for Glamour magazine and the New Yorker, serialized Cancer Vixen in Glamour while undergoing treatment. As well as the narrative of Marchetto’s diagnosis, treatment, and remission, Cancer Vixen recounts the story of Marchetto’s romance and engagement to restaurateur Silvano Marchetto, a narrative embedded in the graphic novel despite preceding it in actual chronology. The narrative explores fears about the cancer's effect on the relationship and about the loss of the chance to be a biological mother, as well as developing the relationship between the engaged couple and between Marisa and her mother (or "(s)mother," as she calls her).
Summary:This book chronicles a tortured parenthood during the birth and brief life of a severely brain-damaged female infant, Silvie. Doctors predict that the child will live only a few days but instead she survives for seven months. The story is told in first person by the mother, beginning with her arduous labor during a home delivery in the presence of an experienced midwife and the family physician. The baby does not cry when she is born and turns blue even with oxygen that the doctor administers. An ambulance is summoned; "a bigger, better oxygen machine" restores the baby's color and she is brought to a hospital neonatal intensive care unit where she is artificially ventilated and fed.