Showing 31 - 40 of 209 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

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.

View full annotation

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. 

View full annotation

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.

View full annotation

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.

View full annotation

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.


View full annotation

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.

View full annotation

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.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This remarkable memoir/natural history chronicles the author's observation of a snail that occupies the flower pot at her bedside during a long immobilization due to chronic fatigue syndrome.  For months of relative isolation, she observes the habits of the snail and begins to research the lives, habits, species, and idiosyncrasies of snails by way of getting to know this one in greater specificity.  As she puts it, "When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound...," (p. 5) and her mind certainly does.  Peering into poetry and story as well as biology, she discovers both facts and lore about the lives of snails to complement her intimate curiosity about the life of this snail.  Along the way, and very much by the way, she reflects on the nature of her own complex illness, the likely brevity of life she has now to expect, and how to learn from another species how to live in time differently. 

View full annotation

Blue Nights

Didion, Joan

Last Updated: Dec-22-2011
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, chronicled the overlap of two catastrophes: the critical illness of her adopted daughter Quintana Roo and the sudden death of her husband of forty years, John Dunne. Between the writing of that memoir and its publication in 2005, Quintana died at age 39. She had suffered a 20 month illness which started as a flu, advanced to pneumonia and sepsis, with intracranial hemorrhage and other complications necessitating 5 surgeries and extended intensive care unit stays. Blue Nights is a meditation on Quintana, and her mother's consuming sense of loss over the tragedy of her only child.

Blue nights refer to the quality of the light during evenings around summer solstice, a time of year which the author feels starts the whole cycle of diminishment and death. The memoir begins with a reminiscence of Quintana's wedding in July 2003 (the same year she falls ill and Dunne dies), as seen 7 years on by Didion. Throughout the description of the wedding are particulars of dress, flowers, design choices and locale which are not only precise, but also hold tremendous meaning to Didion. The branding of clothing, furniture, dishware, hotels etc, is dominant in many parts of the book - the Didion-Dunnes' family life was filled with movie stars, glamorous restaurants, and the hard work of writing. We see Didion on book tours and backstage during the Vanessa Redgrave one woman show of A Year of Magical Thinking.

Although Quintana's death and dying are prominent in the book, her whole life is explored. Issues of her adoption, her mental illness(es), her precociousness and talents, and above all, her relationship with her mother are intimately explored. The reader is given her childhood poems and descriptions of her nightmares and toys.

Another prominent theme is aging. The author was born in 1934, the same year, she notes, as Sophia Loren. Didion experiences neuromuscular problems and describes a particularly frightening episode of loss of consciousness and bleeding. She fears the deterioration of her cognitive abilities and laments she is unable to gain weight. She has a supportive and loving family and network of friends, but ultimately she ponders her aloneness, the lack of someone's name to write down on hospital forms as her emergency contact.  

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Sherwin Nuland has had a distinguished career as a surgeon on the faculty at Yale University and as an author with interests in history of medicine, medical ethics, and medical humanism. In this memoir we become acquainted with a different side of Nuland, that of son to a widowed, immigrant father with whom the author had a complex and difficult relationship.

We learn also that Nuland has suffered from depression on and off since he was preadolescent, experiencing a major breakdown in midlife. This book attempts to make sense out of the family dynamics and the depression. At the same time, it describes the insular world of Russian Jewish immigrants living in New York City's Lower East Side and Bronx in the first half of the 20th century.

Nuland explores, frankly and openly, his ambivalent relationship with his father, Meyer Nudelman, and contrasting adoration of his mother, who died when Nuland was 11. The young Sherwin (Sheppy) Nudelman lived in fear of his father's strict rules and unpredictable anger. Further, Sheppy was required to assist his father whenever he went out of the house because Meyer Nudelman had an unsteady gait that made walking difficult and that became increasingly severe. Although the boy initially enjoyed these neighborhood jaunts with his father, he was increasingly resentful of them as his father's condition deteriorated and as his own interests focused more on people and activities outside the home. His father's strong Yiddish accent, strange gait, and sloppy appearance were a major embarrassment.

The last third of Lost in America--chronologically the era of World War II, the Nazi atrocities, and after--concern Nuland's maturation and his path toward the profession of medicine. As he and his brother, Harvey, were contemplating a future in the world of Gentiles, they decided to change their last name from Nudelman to Nuland. Sherwin Nuland was accepted to medical school at "Waspy" Yale and chose to enroll there, deliberately distancing himself (on the surface) from his father and his culture.

In medical school Nuland realized that Meyer Nudelman's physical symptoms were caused by late stage syphilis. The initial shock and disbelief of that discovery dissipated; Meyer's growing helplessness and tremendous pride in the accomplishment of his son allowed for a measure of understanding and affection between the two.

View full annotation