Showing 31 - 40 of 58 annotations contributed by Davis, Cortney

The Blood of Strangers

Huyler, Frank

Last Updated: Jun-21-2006
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

In 28 autobiographical stories, the narrator writes of his patient encounters (and self encounters) as a medical student, resident, and finally Emergency Room attending physician. "The Unknown Assailant" opens the collection, a tale of a criminal and his victim who are both brought into the doctor-narrator's emergency room. The young doctor chooses "the young one" (p. 1), not knowing he is the assailant, and works frantically to save his life. This criminal allegedly killed two men a year before, but his current victim lives and the doctor learns the story of the attack from this victim's point of view. The assailant, who slowly recovers, has "an aura about him" (p. 5) and the doctor is strangely drawn to him, thankful that this man means him no harm. Perhaps aware of the irony of healing a man who, in another environment, might kill him, the doctor helps the assailant get better.

This underlying theme--that nothing is black and white in medicine or life--shapes every story. "Prelude," is the revealing, three-page tale of a medical student's life outside the hospital juxtaposed with his first encounter with death in the anatomy lab.

Every story deals with significant issues: the physician's inner emptiness when a patient dies ("Through the Dark, Softly"), how a greater power might suddenly intervene ("Faith"), how narrow the margin is between a successful and a missed diagnosis ("Sugar"), how both patients and residents survive because of, or in spite of, their medical attendings ("A Difference of Opinion"), and how things that seem final or sinister--like death and leeches--become instruments of hope and cure ("The Dead Lake"). [Sugar and The Dead Lake have been annotated in this database.)

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Prayer to a Purple God

Studer, Constance

Last Updated: Jan-31-2005
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

The author of this bold collection is a registered nurse who relates, through her poems, patient and caregiver experiences culled from her own years of working in Intensive Care-Coronary Care. There are 24 poems here, most running two to three pages and most written in short lines, a point of craft that adds to their power. There is not one moment of easy sentimentality in these poems. Instead, the author plunges into the grittier side of nursing and illness--and yet, in aggregate, these poems celebrate the embodied and holy work of healing.

In the opening poem, "The-Trickle-Down-Theory-Of-Health," Adam, in the Garden of Eden, is surprised by "The knife" that "separates his ribs." By poem's end, we see health slip "like a ring / from earth's finger" (2), and with this simile we are introduced to the book's underlying metaphor and also to the poet's technique: dense and sometimes near-extreme imagery that ranges, in this poem alone, from encyclopedias to acid rain to barefoot children to librarians to a patient in the dark, "her arteries and shelves / of bone in a ruby gloom" (2). This accumulation of unrelenting, unusual images recreates the world of a patient's pain and suffering and the fierce determination and occasional despair of a caregiver.

"Coma" is written from a comatose woman's point of view, and yet we also see her from the nurse's vantage. In a lovely and surprising twist, the coma becomes, for the patient, a sort of liberation as "Slowly she sloughs, / cell by cell, / the old thorn" (15). This patient is not Sleeping Beauty, who in some fairy tale might be wakened by a kiss. "On the Fireline" becomes a wonderful metaphor for the daily confrontation of illness, for the way the nurse, returning daily to tend her patients, also "coalesces into fire" (16).

The 5-page poem "Intensive Care" perfectly renders the physical sense of being alternately caregiver, patient, and family member within the rarified atmosphere of the ICU (24-28). A patient's blood "pulls against/ the moon, his breath / this tide going out" (26) and, as she comforts a waiting family member, a nurse's eyes "beyond clarity, / unfold a silken language / all their own" (28).

Other not-to-be-missed poems are "The Holy O" (36), "Prayer to a Purple God" (38), "Pieta" (44), "A Riot of Flowers" (52), "What the Body Remembers" (57), and one of my very favorites, "Anesthesia" (59). In "Anesthesia" the caregiver lets an anesthetized patient float like "an embryo / tethered on the end of IV tubing, / floated like an astronaut / in cold stratosphere, / a naked thing / alone / in the universe" (60). But since these poems are finally loving, involved, experienced and hopeful, the patient is told to hush; he is watched over; he is protected. When danger is past, he is reclaimed: "She will hold you / within white-curved wings. / She will reel you back in / when you are healed" (60).

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

Physician and poet Rafael Campo sometimes gives poems to his patients, tucking them in with educational materials and prescriptions. He knows that poetry can be therapeutic for both patient and caregiver, and in this beautifully organized and executed book he tells readers why and how poetry can enhance healing.

The chapters (in which Campo ponders questions such as: Is poetry necessary for survival? How does poetry locate us inside the experience of illness? Why is poetry therapeutic?) follow the arc of illness itself. In Chapter 4, "Inklings," Campo discusses how not-yet-diagnosed symptoms of sickness may be revealed in poetry, the patient "divining" signs of illness "from the clues discernible in a sentient relationship to the world around us" (p. 52).

In following chapters ("Diagnosis," "Treatment," "Side Effects," and "End of Life"), he expertly unfolds, through brilliant poem analysis, how "At every station of the disease experience, poetry has suggested an ulterior discourse that, as it accumulates, forms a composite picture of a humane idea of wellness" (p. 127). In other chapters ("Daniel," "Clara," "Sunny," "Eduardo," and "Mrs. Twomey") he discusses how poetry has changed and informed his clinical and personal interactions with patients.

Fully aware that poetry is not a "cure" for illness and that relationships between patients and caregivers are not always ideally sympathetic, Campo demonstrates how, nonetheless, poetry can be a valid healing modality. In the "Afterword," he urges readers to imagine poetry "as a metaphor itself for the process of healing" and "to experience it through the stories and voices of real people who have themselves called upon it as they faced illness" (p. 188), and he states his wish to see "non-poet physicians use this book with their own patients and medical trainees" (p. 190). An excellent "Further Reading" appendix provides wide-ranging selections for further study.

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Pity My Simplicity

Darby, Ann

Last Updated: Nov-12-2004
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

In the beginning of Ann Darby's lovely and enigmatic short story, "Pity My Simplicity," Dr. Peary, whose medical degree came from "The Franklin School of Eclectic Medicine and Surgery" (3), is trying to deliver Orla Hay's sixth baby, a breech presentation. The doctor is weary and perhaps under-trained, but he is vigilant. Orla's sister asks if she might take over trying to tug out the baby. When the doctor glances at the sister's hands--"Fever-breeders, he's sure, and he won't be blamed for fever"--he says no, he'll manage (4). He does manage, and when the child is "wailing a syncopated, newborn wail" the doctor is undone (5). He weeps, hoping his tears will be mistaken for sweat.

In prose that is atmospheric and evocative, Darby brings us into scene after scene as Dr. Peary's evening unfolds: the delivery, then home to his child and his wife, who tells him, only after he eats his dinner, that Alma Pine down the road "isn't 'faring' well" (8). Just as Orla and her sister expected the doctor to save the baby, both Alma Pine's husband John and Dr. Peary's wife expect him to figure out what's wrong with Alma. "And you waited to tell me?" Peary asks his wife (9).

In the final and longest scene in the story, Peary hurries to attend to Alma, a woman dying of tetanus. About to enter her room, Peary laments that he's never grown "callous to this moment," the second when he enters the lives of his patients (12). He walks in to find Alma writhing in her bed and her husband glowering nearby. "Quiet! Look what you've done," the husband accuses (12). The doctor nods, accepting guilt.

Later, he thinks, he will write in her chart words that describe her state but cannot cure. At the story's end, he gives Alma "the morphia, the one centigramme dose he always carries with him" (14). As he gives Alma this dose, he never looks at her husband, "which is fine because John Pine cannot bear to look at him" (14).

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One of Everything

Fisher, Diane Gilliam

Last Updated: May-27-2004
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

One of Everything is vol. 54 of the Cleveland Poets Series, and author Fisher's voice and subject matter are, for the most part, rich with the language and imagery of blue-collar, mid-Western, and Southern life experiences. A strong introductory poem, "The Way Home to West Virginia," introduces some of the collection's themes: how the truth of a family--abuse, rape, hard work--might be hidden behind a veneer of gentility and religion; how poems, with their sometimes harsh messages might also be made to appear orderly; and how, for this poet, the "way home" includes looking squarely at "History, signs, salvation: things that hurt."

The poems in each of the book's three sections are excellent, made unique by the writer's intimate and colloquial voice. But, for me, the most amazing poems are the last eleven in the book, as if the poet couldn't bring herself to speak of her daughter Sarah's cystic fibrosis. This illness becomes chief among those "things that hurt" and redefine a family.

The first of these poems is "Story Problem," which introduces the daughter who, at twelve, is already doing the math, figuring out that "going by what / she's been through" she should be at least fourteen. In "Overnight," the poet-narrator cleans up after her daughter and an overnight friend who've been cooking and made a floury mess. Anger and silence reign, and the white flour in the daughter's hair becomes a portent of age, illness, disappearance.

"In Her Hospital Room" is the first to name the illness discovered when Sarah was seven months old. This poem recalls the new diagnosis, the new grief, "how unformed it was," implying that, in poetry, the author might attempt a way to pin down and examine her child's disease.

The illness becomes, in some ways, a sacred connection between mother and daughter. In "Permanent at Ruth Ann's," the beauty operator says to another customer that Sarah "don't want to be coming here. . . for the next forty years." The mother notices the shine in Sarah's eyes--tears or humor?--when she replies "Oh, yes I do." Both daughter and mother know that forty years, for Sarah, might be a miracle.

In "The Sweat Chloride Test Is One Hundred Percent Accurate and Cystic Fibrosis Is One Hundred Percent Fatal," the poet recalls the stunning confirmation of the diagnosis, how it came from a doctor chosen because she was a mother, because "she was from Texas / so her voice sounded a little like home," recalling the poet's family home, one that also hid abuse and threat behind a country accent. A lovely short poem, "Sixty-Five Roses," is a play off the "misnaming, the alias" of cystic fibrosis.

"How I Decided Not to Write a Sestina About Cystic Fibrosis" is a masterful look at how words define and confine us, how something like the story of a daughter's illness might be too big for any received form to contain but must be, like a poem, allowed to unfold organically. The poem looks at misunderstood words, important words, and the significance of last words, which in this poem is "cry." "CF Clinic, Children's Hospital," is a luminous poem that captures both the beauty and horror of suffering in memorable images and language. "Unknown Caller" is a found poem, copied from the automated appointment reminder that appeared on the author's answering machine, ending "To make a change, please press 2."

The two last poems in the collection don't attempt to make a change but to accept and mourn what is. "Crescendo, Decrescendo" compares coughing fits, the "quivering breath" of Sarah's violin playing, and the mother's cry, like Sarah's newborn cry when "they went ahead and cut the cord." The final poem, "How It Is," focuses on the reality of the daughter's body and her prognosis, how the mother longs to rock the now-grown woman as she did the baby, a rocking "not so different from the keening of grief."

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Tenderly Lift Me is the latest publication from Kent State University Press in the Literature and Medicine series edited by Martin Kohn and Carol Donley. Not all the 39 caregivers Bryner honors through poetry, biographical sketches and photos are nurses, but all have discharged their caregiving duties as the title indicates: tenderly. The book opens with a preface by Bryner who wants "people to care about nurses the way nurses care about people who are total strangers" (p.xii). A literate and insightful introduction by Suzanne Poirier and Rosemary Field follows.

The book, divided into eight parts, contains biographical sketches and interviews with nurses or tender caregivers, their photographs, and poems by Bryner in which she speaks in the voices of the individual nurses, celebrating but never sentimentalizing their stories.

Some of the nurses are daughters of blue-collar workers: Carol Johnson (p. 77) went on to become a cardiothoracic nurse practitioner, harvesting veins for open heart surgeries. Helen Albert (p. 52), the granddaughter of a slave, became "the first black registered nurse hired in Warren, Ohio." The nurses celebrated are both living and dead; some are aged, this book the only vessel that might hold their histories. All the caregivers, like Father Damien, born in 1840, caretaker to a colony of lepers in Molokai, come alive in Bryner's prose and poems, speaking to us in image and metaphor as well as fact and biography.

There are journal entries from Kate Cumming, who cared for confederate soldiers during the Civil War (p. 151), and comments from contemporary nurses, like Sylvia Engelhardt, one of the first nurses to graduate from an associate degree program and feel the "sting of labels" (p. 69), or Theresa Marcotte Kokrak (p. 46) who remembers traveling though Canada's seventy-below wind-chill to report to duty. Bryner celebrates the nurses' accomplishments as well as the daily events, the doubts and frustrations, the dark moments that these nurses have overcome in order to care for others, nurses who are "human, and sometimes a little heroic, but not from heaven" (P. xii).

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Regarding the Pain of Others

Sontag, Susan

Last Updated: Mar-08-2004
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

When we view photographs of war-torn bodies, piled-up corpses, or starving children, are we changed? How about the photographer, whether a professional or an amateur, who takes such pictures? Do these photographs teach us about suffering--or do they numb us over time and simply cause us to turn away? In this slim book Sontag re-visits her ideas in "On Photography," published 25 years ago.

Her aim, it seems, is not so much to answer the above questions but to provoke us by her statements, urging us at least to THINK about what happens when suffering is viewed third hand; because after all, she reminds us, we see only what the photographer wanted us to see. When scenes of violence are as close as our morning papers or our TV screens, Sontag's is an important debate.

She also gives a brief history of photo-journalism, from the Crimean and Civil Wars to the almost instantaneous transmission of images from Operation Iraqi Freedom. In chapters that sometimes seem to disagree with one another, she plays the devil's advocate and views the IDEA of photographs of suffering from all directions. Can gruesome photos be artistic? Should they be? And if a war photo is posed--a corpse moved for a better shot or a battle scene restaged to make it more dramatic--is the effect enhanced or decreased? She considers the impact of candid photos versus those technologically manipulated; she discusses how photos, and their impact on us, change when the names of the victims are revealed.

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How JFK Killed My Father

Berlin, Richard

Last Updated: Jan-28-2004
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

How JFK Killed My Father is a collection of 52 poems by psychiatrist Richard Berlin. The book is divided into five sections--"Learning the Shapes," "Role Models," "Code Blue," "What a Psychiatrist Remembers," and "What I Love"--and these subtitles guide the reader through this physician's poignant journey from medical student to accomplished, and humbled, "healer, priest, turner of textbook pages, searcher, listener, arrogant crow consumed in white" ("If You Ask Me My Name").

Berlin's poems succeed because of strong imagery and the kind of internal "knowing" that only comes when one pays attention to the sights, sounds, and emotional nuances that occur in training, in practice, and in life. A musician as well as a doctor, Berlin sometimes uses jazz as a metaphor: in "Uncle Joe" he writes about "suffering's music" and in "Learning the Shapes" medical students practice examining patients until their fingers are as sensitive as a "blind bluesman" whose fingers can sense the right note "an instant before / touching a tight steel string."

Berlin "gets" the stress of med school and residency just right in "Sunday Parade" and "January Thaw"; as his poems retrace his path from student to practicing psychiatrist, he transmits the deepening of both experience and empathy in the same right-on way: "What I Revealed," "Places We Have Met," "What a Dying Woman Saw," "Transference," "What a Psychiatrist Remembers," "What Makes a Psychiatrist Cry," "Our Medical Marriage," and "What I Love" stand out as examples. The poems in this collection are personal, eloquent, straightforward and well crafted; they move effortlessly between body, mind, and spirit.

A reader could open this collection to any poem and be captivated, but for full impact this collection is best read from beginning to end. Medical students, especially, might welcome this volume as a guide along their way.

(Some of the poems here also appear in Berlin's chapbook, Code Blue, which is annotated in this database.)

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Summary:

This treatise is part of the Madeleva Lecture Series in Spirituality, an annual presentation sponsored by the Center for Spirituality, Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana. Margaret Farley's lecture begins with a brief introduction to the successes and failures of the global response to AIDS and HIV both worldwide and in Africa. Her aim is to demonstrate that "compassion needs to be normatively shaped, both as an attitude and as the generator of actions," and that the form compassion and help take must be directed in part by the "real needs" of the individuals involved.

What follows in this brief book is an excellent review of traditional and feminist ethics, from the moral concepts of "individual autonomy," "nonmaleficence," "beneficence," and "distributive justice" to Carol Gilligan's "ethic of care." Farley looks at these and other ethical precepts with a keen eye, and then proposes a blended moral response she calls compassionate respect. Her intelligent, focused discussion of what compassionate respect might encompass includes a look at the role of compassion within various religions and how caregivers might modulate giving, mercy, and love into compassion and care.

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Turning Fifty

Dunn, Stephen

Last Updated: Nov-20-2003
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

In the first of this poem's three stanzas, the narrator is looking out the window, presumably on or near his fiftieth birthday. He watches as a baby possum is snatched up by a fox while the possum's mother stands dumbly by. Seeing this, the narrator notes that it is one more thing he "couldn't do anything about." In fact, he sees the drama dispassionately. He says that instead of "feeling very much" he had the sense of "something dull / like a small door being shut, / a door to someone else's house."

In the next stanza, later that night, the narrator is flipping through the TV channels but stops when he is captivated by a nurse who "had a beautiful smile / while she spoke about triage and death." Again he observes death from afar as the nurse talks about her experiences in Viet Nam and how a dying soldier asked her to bend closer so he could smell her hair.

In the final stanza, the narrator's wife comes home, tired. The narrator, however, is somehow energized; he wants to talk about the possum, the fox, and the young man who "wanted one last chaste sense / of a woman." The wife wants a drink, some music, everything "normal." But the narrator, transformed by the nurse's smile, its "pretty hint of pain / the other expressions it concealed," is no longer just an observer.

He now has "something to say," something almost inexpressible about life and death, the death that he is moving closer to but was, at the poem's beginning, unable to face. The nurse's experience--her proximity to death, her ability not only to observe but to acknowledge and honor it--has somehow transformed him.

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