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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:The first person narrator of this debut novel is a young pathologist, a woman who relates the story of her family over the course of the book. The story is bleak: a young German woman marries an Austrian soldier in WWII, moves to Austria with him and has three children - two sons (one of whom dies as a youth following abdominal surgery) and the narrator-daughter. In a running commentary, almost hallucinatory at times, the narrator offers brief descriptions of a traditional preliminary internship year during which she acts as a pathologist, cares for in-patients, and even makes a futile ambulance call to a fatally injured man in a freight yard. Yet, virtually the entire novel revolves around her family:her father (whose tuberculosis is briefly described), a factory worker with dreams of inventing an electronic security relay (never realized); intermittent holidays of evanescent family happiness; and a long threnody about her father's eventual death at the end of the book from a hopeless and domestically abusive alcoholism. Her detailed description of his death traumatizes everyone around her and leads to a rupture in the family.
Summary:Emily Bauer, mother of two small children, psychotherapist and teacher, social, smart, athletic, and strong-willed, finds, after a curious series of falls and other accidents, that she has ALS, "Lou Gehrig's Disease," a disease that involves slow atrophy of all muscular control, leading to complete paralysis and then death. The disease is relentless, and treatments palliative at best.
Summary:Eric Calhoune is known to his classmates as "Moby" because of the extra weight he has carried since grade school. Though his mother is young and athletic, he has inherited the body type of the father he's never known. Now, in high school, the fat is turning to muscle under the discipline of hard swim team workouts. But that transformation has been slow in coming, since for some time Eric has taken on a private commitment to "stay fat for Sarah Byrnes." Sarah, whose name is a painful pun, was severely burned as a small child not, as we are given to believe early on, because of an accident, but because of a cruel and crazy father who stuck her face and hands into a woodstove in a moment of rage. She has lived with him and his threats for some time; that and her disfiguring scars have made her tough, smart, and self-protective. Eric and she became friends as social outcasts. Well-matched intellectually and in their subversive wit, they write an underground newspaper together. Sarah, however, lands suddenly in the hospital, speaking to no one, making eye contact with no one. Eric faithfully visits her and, per nurses' instructions, keeps up a running one-sided conversation as if she could hear him. As it turns out, she can. She is faking catatonia because the hospital is a safe place, and she has chosen this as an escape route from her father. Eric and a sympathetic coach/teacher go to great lengths to find Sarah's mother-who, it turns out, can't bring herself to be involved in her daughter's life because of her own overwhelming shame. Ultimately the father is apprehended, and Sarah, nearly eighteen, is taken into the coach's home and adopted for what remains of the childhood she bypassed long before. In the course of this main plot, other kids enter the story and in various ways come to terms with serious issues in their own lives, some of which are aired in a "Contemporary American Thought" course where no controversy is taboo.
The Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) has two big dilemmas. His large, extended family is thinking of selling their inherited 25,000 acres to a developer—and he must help the consortium decide what to do for the benefit of all. Worse, his wife Elizabeth is in a coma on life support following a severe injury from water skiing. He is trying to parent their two daughters, aged 10 and 17, but the girls are unruly and sulky. He thinks that they are acting out because of their mother’s absence.
The doctors tell Matt that Elizabeth will never recover. According to her living will, she does not want to be left on a machine; they must pull the plug. Matt confides in the older daughter who then informs him that Elizabeth had been having an affair. Her sullenness is sublimated anger with her mother for—among other things—how Matt had been treated. Other family friends know of the infidelity and identify the lover as Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) a real estate agent living on Kaua’i.
Amazed by his wife’s secret, Matt overcomes his sense of betrayal and resolves to respect her feelings, find the lover and give him a chance to say goodbye. The little family flies to Kaua’i looking for Brian and to deal with the sale of the family estate. Matt meets Brian’s beautiful wife Julie– who is sympathetic to his situation, not knowing of the connection with her husband. When Matt confronts Brian, he is surprised that Brian has no interest in saying good-bye to Elizabeth. What, for Elizabeth, had been a life-changing relationship, for Brian, was a fling that “just happened” and which he wants to forget. He is terrified that Julie will discover his infidelity and leave him.
Matt contends that “things do not just happen.” Everything happens for a reason. Wondering what his own role had been in Elizabeth’s reasons for taking part in the affair, Matt goes home for her death. But he also decides not to sell the family estate and keep it as a nature preserve over the opposition of many cousins. Brian never appears, but Julie has learned of his infidelity and she comes to the hospital out of duty and horror. It is not clear if her marriage will survive.
In the final scene, Matt and his daughters are in a little boat off Waikiki where they spread Elizabeth’s ashes.
Simon Bear is a hard-charging physician; his wife Emily is a successful public relations executive, now a senior partner in her firm. Although they have a lavish house, a teen-aged daughter, and much wealth, their marriage is troubled, in large part because they have never fully mourned the death of their baby Caleb.
The title “Remedies” fits well with the long struggle for how to heal their grief. The remedies that clearly have not worked are obsessions with career, professionalism, rationalism, and the trappings of American materialism.
Simon has two obsessions about his practice. The first is that he is a rescuer, the perfect doctor who listens to his patients and gives them what they want. As a self-appointed expert on pain, he is free and easy about prescribing opiates. When his father-in-law feels no pain after a car accident, Simon is sure that a drug that the man is taking is, in fact, the Holy Grail of pain medications. Simon becomes obsessed with this “discovery,” promoting it to his patients, without a scientific study or consideration of ethical implications. When he flies to a national medical meeting to trumpet the news of this remedy, no one will listen to him.
While Simon is the point of view for Parts One, Three, and Five, Emily—structurally separated—is the voice and focus of Parts Two and Four. She is troubled by her distance from Simon and, increasingly, her 13-year-old daughter, who is sullen and rebellious. When she meets Will, a former lover, she seeks another kind of remedy in an affair with him, even prospects of marriage. Contrasting with her strategic, rational approach to life, Will is an open, easy-going man, conveniently separated from his wife.
A series of crises rock Emily, then Simon. Emily begins to understand her anger; she has a breakthrough with her daughter. Simon has several setbacks, including humiliations, but he is not crushed. Although ordinarily a secular Jew, Simon attends the Kol Nidre service the evening service before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In a powerful and moving passage, he finds healing, relief, and a new direction for his life—a true remedy.
Summary:Creation tells the story of Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) at home with his family in Down House during the last decade he researched and wrote, but hesitated to publish, The Origin of Species (1859). The film represents the sorrow of those intellectually ripe years when he worked out his insights into the process of natural selection as his "radiant," beloved daughter Annie-Anne Elizabeth-(Martha West) became fatally ill. These events were compounded by Darwin's own mysterious chronic illness, which he attempted to relieve through laudanum and trips to Great Malvern for Gulley's cold water cures.
Summary:A series of interrelated stories that include a novella (Sukkwan Island), the book is a semi-autobiographical tale of the impact of a father's suicide on his teenage son. The author, David Vann, represents his fictional self as Roy Fenn, and his father as Jim. In the first story, "Ichthyology," Roy is born on an island "at the edge of the Bering Sea" of Alaska and then he and his family move to Ketchikan, on an island in southeastern Alaska. Roy's father is ever restless and that includes an interest in women other than his wife. When Roy is about five years old the marriage breaks up and Roy moves to California with his mother. At the end of this chapter, Roy's father kills himself with one of his own guns.
The journalist author investigates the hidden lives of his father and his grandfather, both physicians. He is motivated by the mysterious silence that pervaded the ancestral home in a wealthy Toronto neighborhood, and by the frightening tendency to depression and suicide that stalks his family members like an Irish curse.
He uncovers many details of the early adventures of his parents, the failure of their marriage, and his father’s doomed career. From his beginnings as a debonair socialite, the father, Jack, embarks on a promising medical career as an allergist; however, he virtually sinks into taciturn misery and alcoholic self-destruction, unable to express affection or joy. Jack’s endless travails as a patient through shock therapy, analysis, and heavy psychiatric drugs are presented in merciless detail using hospital records and interviews with caregivers. The author’s self-indulgent anger with his self-absorbed father drives the research deeper into the earlier generation, to learn about the grandfather of whom his parents rarely spoke.
The author's grandfather, Irish-born John Gerald FitzGerald (1882-1940), son of an immigrant pharmacist and an invalid mother, strode through the exciting scientific world of the early twentieth century like a medical Forrest Gump. At first, he is drawn into the new fields of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and neuropathology; cameo appearances of Freud, Ernest Jones and C.K. Clarke light up the story. But then this elder FitzGerald is swayed by the need to control infections and produce vaccines. He travels Europe and the United States for three years learning bacteriology.
Upon his return to Canada in 1913, he fearlessly launches a Canadian-made solution, outfitting a stable and a horse farm to produce rabies vaccine and diphtheria anti-toxin. The initiative evolves into the famous Connaught Laboratories and the School of Hygiene, its academic arm. Other luminaries enter the story– such as Banting and Best of insulin fame and C.B. Farrar of psychiatry. FitzGerald served as Scientific Director of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation and as Dean of the University of Toronto medical school.
Nevertheless in his late fifties, having accomplished so much, the grandfather crashes into doubt, depression and self-destruction, believing himself a failure and consumed with guilt for some never-disclosed transgression. Did his stellar achievements, his high expectations, and his baffling demise dictate the collapse of his son Jack?