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Jerome Lowenstein is a nephrologist, author, and founder of the Bellevue Literary Press and the Humanistic Aspects of Medicine Education seminar program at the NYU School of Medicine. In this thoughtful and illuminating book of essays he explores the patient/physician relationship in a world where medicine has embraced technology and scientific advances in the laboratory at the risk of neglecting the humanistic underpinnings of the field.
Dr. Lowenstein graduated from medical school at NYU in the late 1950s and spent nearly his entire professional career at NYU Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital. When he was a resident, long before work hour limits were instituted, the house staff gathered in the cafeteria at midnight to dine on the days’ leftovers. This communal meal “provided a fine opportunity to communicate with colleagues directly, rather than by beeper and phone, about many of the days ‘medical leftovers,’ ” (1) sharing information as well as the frustrations and rewards of caring for patients. “The Midnight Meal” poses the challenge of retaining the core of relationships, both between patient and physician and among colleagues in the rapidly changing world of medicine today.
In the essay, “Can You Teach Compassion,” Dr. Lowenstein tells his readers about the student who responded to the question with “I don’t know if you can teach compassion, but you surely can teach the opposite.” (13) The student was referring to how students become “desensitized” during their clinical years to the suffering of their patients, sometimes to the point of using derogatory terms to describe them. Dr. Lowenstein argues that teaching attendings can and should encourage students to learn about their patients. He writes how he once interrupted an intern who began to present a case by stating: “This is the first hospital admission of this thirty-five year old IVDA.” Dr. Lowenstein asks: “Would our thinking or care be different if you began your history by telling us that this is a thirty-five-year-old Marine veteran who has been addicted to drugs since he served with valor, in Vietnam?” (17) Learning about the lives of their patients, Lowenstein emphasizes, does not detract from the clinical picture, but rather enhances it.
Summary:In this collection of "clinical tales," to use Oliver Sacks' term, Sue Hall, an experienced neonatologist who spent some years as a social worker before medical school, tells a remarkable range of stories about newborns in the NICU and their parents. As memoir, the stories record moments in a life full of other people's traumas, disappointments, anxieties, and hard-won triumphs where her job has been to hold steady, find a balance point between professionalism and empathy as young parents go through one of the hardest kinds of loss. Each story is told with clarity and grace, sketching the characters deftly and offering useful medical information along the way on the assumption that many who read the book will do so because they are facing similar challenges and decisions. Each story is followed by a two- to three-page "Note" giving more precise medical background and offering further resources for those who have particular interest in the kind of case it was.
Summary:Tora lived happily on a mountain farm in Norway until her beloved mother's death and her own subsequent diagnosis with leprosy, an illness common in early 19th-century Norway and one that drove her mother to suicide. Upon diagnosis (at the age of 13) she is taken to the leprosarium in Bergen, from which very few emerge. Most are left there by families whose fear of the disease leads them to abandon even much-loved children, parents, and spouses. There, despite the misery of living among many who consider themselves the living dead, she finds a friend in Marthe, the chief cook and general caregiver, a woman of almost boundless kindness; and the "Benefactor," a pastor who is remarkably unafraid of the disease from which most flee, and who befriends Tora as she grows into an unpromising early adulthood. Another unlikely friend is a noblewoman who has languished, embittered, behind a closed door with a trunk full of her old gowns and several cherished books, including the Bible, The Divine Comedy, Gulliver's Travels, and a popular Norwegian epic about the adventures of Niels Klim at the center of the earth. She gradually softens toward Tora, who cares for her tenderly as the older woman teaches her to read. Reading becomes not only Tora's consolation, but that of many of her fellow inmates. Near the end of her own short, but surprisingly rich life, Tora's father shows up after years of neglect. Forgiving him, almost against her will, she reaches a new level of acceptance of her own mysterious fate. The book includes a short afterword about the actual leprosarium in which the story is situated and about Gerhard Armauer Hansen who in 1873 discovered the bacillus responsible for leprosy, the first bacterium proved to be the cause of a chronic human disease.
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.
Summary:Where many writers about illness have raised questions about the widespread and often unexamined appropriation of military metaphors to describe how doctors and patients have "struggled with," "combatted," "fought," or "defeated" illness, Dreuilhe embraces it and plays it out to the far reaches of its logic. Part of the brilliance of this AIDS narrative lies in the way it brings new dimensions of meaning to a metaphor that has become so conventional as to be cliché or so imbedded in the language of illness and treatment, it simply fails to be recognized as metaphor. Beginning with the "simple skirmishes at the frontier garrisons," Dreuilhe chronicles the progression of his own illness with the sharp eye of a good war reporter who sees through the chaos of the battlefield to the strategies being played out. "Whenever I take an experimental drug," Dreulhe writes, "—and people fight desperately to be among those privileged to risk their lives—I feel as though I belong to a unit of shock troops parachuted behind enemy lines: already written off as a casualty, I'm entrusted with the task of spearheading the advance."
Summary:It started with a faint. Javier Miranda, a generally healthy 69-year-old man living in Venezuela, attributes his episode of dizziness to the summer heat and humidity. His only child, Andres Miranda, is a physician whose intuition tells him something is seriously wrong with his father. The doctor obtains blood work and schedules a CT scan and MRI of the brain for Javier. The medical work-up reveals rapidly progressing lung cancer with metastases to the brain. Violating his credo of complete honesty with patients, Dr. Miranda lies to his father and reassures him instead. Dr. Miranda's mother died when he was just 10 years old. Now his father's remaining lifespan has dwindled to a couple of months. The doctor must find a way to break the bad news to his dad.
Summary:Adam, nine and diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, wanders into the woods outside his schoolyard with a new friend, Amelia, who is ten and diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder. Worried parents and teachers wait until the police discover Amelia's body with a stab wound and retrieve Adam unharmed. Adam, unable to communicate very directly with anyone, inadvertently provides key clues to solve the mystery, which involves an old friend of his mother's, confined to a wheelchair since an accident he suffered in elementary school. In the course of recovering from the trauma the whole community is changed, and Adam finds a new friend who will very likely be able to cross bridges into his world and accompany him on his mysterious journey for a long time to come.
Summary:Parts of medical history read like detective novels. The discovery of the source of cholera by Dr. John Snow in London in 1854 is one of those episodes. The Ghost Map tells the story of Snow's pioneering work in what have now become standard epidemiological methods. Tracing a cholera outbreak to a local pump in a poor section of London involved many door-to-door visits working with people who weren't always cooperative, incurring the suspicion and/or ridicule of both them and the medical professionals with whom he worked. In the course of the story the author offers reflections on the organization of cities and on public hygiene. Snow, an out-of-the-box thinker, also helped develop surgical anesthesia.
Summary:Jacob, a teen with Asperger's syndrome, has long been obsessed with the details of crime scenes and crime detection. He tends to show up when local crimes are reported, and is sometimes able to offer unnerving insights to forensic analysts. He works closely with an empathetic, intuitive young woman tutor whose controlling boyfriend has more than once tried to taunt Jacob out of her life, but she and Jacob have a strong, healthy connection that ridicule can't touch. When she is found murdered, Jacob becomes a suspect, partly because of his proximity to the crime, and partly because the symptoms of Asperger's-avoiding eye contact, twitching, and hesitant or repetitive speech-resemble guilty behavior. Though he has valuable information to offer as to who actually committed the crime, the process of making himself heard by those disinclined to take him seriously and uninformed about his syndrome, takes time, during which the disrupted lives of those around Jacob, especially his mother, become stories in their own right.