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Subtitled "New and Selected Medical Poems," this volume includes poems on illness and healing from Downie's three previous collections, along with several new poems. A longer piece called "Learning Curve Journal" serves as a framework for the book.
Beginning with the desperate voice he hears on his first night as a "suicide line" volunteer, the poet reveals the shape of his own medical learning curve, moving poem by poem from "Orientation" through the realm of "Patient Teaching" and "Teaching Rounds" to "Pronouncing Death." Among the many strong poems in this collection are "Diagnosis: Heart Failure," "Louise," "Sudden Infant Death," "Wishbone," "Living with Cancer," and "Ron and Don."
This documentary video follows the making of an opera, based on the illness experiences of four Australians who have been diagnosed and treated for cancer. Their feelings about these experiences are translated into music (with lyrics) as they work closely with music therapist/composer, Emma O'Brien. As the three women and one man tell their stories of physical debility and emotional pain, the music therapist asks them to think in terms of color (they choose purple, black) and tones and rhythms that she plays for them on the piano.
When the narratives and their musical representations have evolved sufficiently, trained singers take on the roles "written" for them by the four former patients; the latter continue to be intimately involved in the opera's production, directed by David Kram. At the end of the project, which is also the conclusion of the film, the opera is performed in front of an audience (with musicians playing instruments, singing, and dramatic enactment) and the four people whose illness experience is performed take their bows together with the singers.
The documentary film opens with the filmmaker, Susan Smiley, in search of her mother, Millie, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and who, once again, has disappeared into the woefully inadequate public health care system of middle America. Through old photographs and home movies, interviews with family members and health care professionals, and voice-over and direct narration by Smiley herself, the film chronicles the descent of a young, beautiful woman in her twenties into severe and chronic mental illness.
When Millie’s marriage to their father fails, Susan and her younger sister, Tina, are essentially abandoned to endure severe physical and emotional abuse by their mother. As the years unfold, Millie eventually loses her home and embarks on a journey of evictions, arrests, hospitalizations, and homelessness. At what seems to be Millie’s lowest point, warehoused in a nursing home where she is angrily refusing to take any medication, her daughters intervene, petition for guardianship, and navigate the system on behalf of their mother.
After being struck by a speeding car while riding his bicycle, Paul Rayment suffers extensive damage to his right leg. An above-knee amputation is performed by a young surgeon, Dr. Hansen. Paul is a 60-year-old former photographer who lives in Australia. Divorced and childless, he has no one to assist him with the activities of daily living after he is discharged from the hospital. He refuses a prosthesis. Paul's accident and loss of a limb have triggered a reexamination of his life. He now regrets never having fathered a child. Paul's life is further complicated by three unusual women.
He hires a Croatian lady, Marijana Jokic, as his day nurse and aid. He is attracted to and dependent on the much younger Marijana. Although she is married and has three children, he lusts for her. He offers to act as a godfather for Marijana's children and provide funds for their education. Drago, Marijana's oldest child, lives with Paul for a while. Drago and his father build a customized cycle to convey Paul, but the crippled man doubts he will ever ride it.
Paul has a single sexual encounter with a woman blinded by a tumor. Her name is Marianna. He is blindfolded during the affair and pays her afterwards. A novelist with a weak heart, Elizabeth Costello, intrudes on Paul. The elderly woman is mysterious. She pesters him, occupies his apartment without an invitation, and peppers him with questions. In time, all three females fade from his world, leaving Paul still struggling to adapt to loss and a new life.
In three sections of remarkable narrative poems, Fraser reviews how his own and his family's lives are utterly changed by the birth of his youngest brother, Jonathan, who is profoundly disabled by spina bifida and has survived into adulthood--long beyond what doctors predicted. An introduction provides the context: the poems chronicle a hard journey from denial, shame, and anger to acceptance. As Fraser writes toward the end of the final, title poem: "We must learn to cherish chance to have one." But chance has dealt his brother, and so his family, a particularly hard blow.
The first section focuses primarily on his own remembered reactions and reflections--his guilt, his cluelessness--as a child and adolescent; the second on relationships with family and friends as an adult, all of them partly shaped and shaded by the ongoing suffering of his disabled brother; the third and longest, an exercise in empathy-with his mother and with Jonathan, neither of whose suffering, he realizes, is entirely imaginable to him. The poems are regular free verse, rich with allusion, emotional precision, and narrative detail.
Thirty-one-year-old waitress and aspiring (but inexperienced) boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) tries to get aging trainer-coach Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to take her on, but where Maggie is unstoppably optimistic, Frankie is worn out, even burned out, and he repeatedly refuses. The two are brought together by Frankie's assistant, ex-fighter Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman). Freeman, whom the other characters call Scrap, narrates the film.
Maggie and Frankie have their ups and down, but Maggie rapidly becomes a formidable boxer, a great favorite with fans. Eventually she finds herself in the ring as challenger for the world welterweight title. The unscrupulous defender delivers an illegal punch to Maggie, resulting in a fall that leaves her paralyzed below the neck.
At this point the story turns from boxing to Maggie's injury, which is incurable and worsening because she is bedridden. After Maggie loses a leg to bed sores, she tells Frankie that she doesn't want to go on, and she asks him to put her out of her misery. Short as her career has been, she has known success and happiness beyond the dreams of her dirt-poor upbringing, and she wants to leave life while she can still remember those good things.
Frankie, a serious Catholic, has religious qualms. His priest tells him not to get involved. From his own point of view, Frankie has come to feel attached to Maggie, and at first he steadfastly refuses Maggie's request. Maggie, unable to act in any other way, bites her tongue violently in an attempt to bleed herself to death. After witnessing her agony, Frankie tells the priest that keeping Maggie close to him--in other words, not killing her--has come to feel like a sin. He then acts to rid himself of that sin. He covertly removes her air supply and then injects her with adrenalin. Frankie does not return to his gym, vanishing without a word.
This collection of 20 poems is inspired by the human body. In anatomical detail these poems depict the body's beauty of structure, its rhythm of movement, its versatility of metaphor. This is not surprising, perhaps, for the work of a poet who is also a physical therapist.
In "What I Know" (p. 11) the poet helps his patient across a hospital lobby into the "breezy, sun-dotted day." She struggles with her walker, as the poet visualizes her impairment in himself, in a spiritual sense "unable to move or feel my right side." And the world's more global impairment, where each day violence is visited upon the "brave peacemakers and blessedly meek." "Tongue" (pp. 16-17) builds upon the earthy glossals, glottals and trills made by the muscles of speech to celebrate the expressive beauty of song, while remembering that the tongue is "flesh . . . first and last."
Kelly sticks closely to flesh in "Surface Anatomy" (pp. 21-22), in which he draws word-portraits of bones, including the greater trochanter of the femur, vertebral spinous processes, and patella, and in "Voluptuosity" (pp. 27-28), where he thanks God for the body's curves: "The body's curving comes / to the hand like the dry fields / rise to rain. . . "
The son of a poor widow, François Burnens is overwhelmed with his good fortune when he is hired to assist the gentleman-scientist, François Huber. Blind since the age of 19, Huber studies bees, helped by his wife in his observations at their Geneva home. Now expecting their second child, the couple realizes that she must concentrate on the family. Through Burnens's diary, from 1785 to 1794, the young man grows as a scientist, a writer, and a human being. Charles Bonnet and other scientists visit in person or in citation.
The domestic drama of the home plays against a backdrop of the menacing turbulence in nearby France. Burnens' admiration, respect and pity for Huber keeps him in the modestly-paid employ for nine long years. But his fascination with an artistically talented young woman shows him that his situation as a valued servant must come to an end.
While riding his bicycle, Paul Rayment, a 60-year-old Australian photographer, is struck by a car. He winds up in the hospital, has a leg amputated, and returns to his quarters to contemplate his future and deal with a series of nurses sent by the hospital social worker. Paul is divorced and has no living family.
His future looks bleak, and none of the nurses is satisfactory until the appearance of Marijana, a middle-aged Croatian woman with a young daughter, a teenage son, and a husband. The narrator gradually falls in love with Marijana, but by degrees his lust sublimates into an intense devotion to helping her son Drago survive his motorcycle phase and achieve his educational and professional objectives.
A chronicle of the author's perceptions, thoughts, memories, and personal relationships during the months after he was diagnosed as having AIDS. Brodkey's mind and prose are as sharp as a knife's edge. Beginning with the desperate struggle for breath that signaled pneumonia and, retrospectively, "how my life ended. And my dying began," continuing with the reactions and decisions of himself and his wife, the first half of the essay spins out an observant, introspective, cerebral, even amusing account of his particular experience.
But AIDS is often a disease associated with more emotional baggage than other fatal illnesses, and in Brodkey's case we learn that he traces both his dying and his homosexual experiences to "the major drama of [his] adolescence", daily sexual abuse by his adoptive father, with the implied knowledge and acquiescence of his mother. Writes Brodkey, "I experimented with homosexuality to break my pride, to open myself to the story." "Now I will die disfigured and in pain."