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A Streetcar Named Desire

Williams, Tennessee

Last Updated: May-24-2016
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

The play is set in 1947 (the year it premiered) in New Orleans. Having lost their ancestral Mississippi home to creditors, Blanche Dubois arrives at the shabby French Quarter flat of her sister Stella. When we first meet Blanche she explains she is on a leave of absence from teaching high school English on account of her “nerves.” From her first meeting with Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski, a World War II vet, we detect class conflict and sexual tension between the two of them. As Blanche’s visit becomes more and more protracted, Stanley becomes increasingly suspicious of her motives and background. Meanwhile, she begins to date Mitch, one of Stanley’s poker buddies. Gradually we learn more about Blanche’s checkered past. She was once married to a young man who committed suicide after she discovered him in a sexual encounter with another man. Stanley uncovers rumors that she was fired from her teaching job for having sex with a student. As the play progresses, fueled by her surreptitious drinking, Blanche’s mental state unravels. When Stanley warns Mitch about Blanche’s notorious reputation, Mitch rejects her.  Adding insult to injury, while Stella is having a baby, Stanley rapes his sister-in-law. Blanche’s emotional deterioration is complete. In the final scene, a doctor and nurse arrive to take Blanche to a mental hospital. She initially resists them, but when the doctor helps her up she willingly surrenders: “Whoever you are - I have always depended on the kindness of strangers"(p. 178).

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Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

In this volume, Gonzalez-Crussi trains his sights on medical history, applying his lyrical writing skills to essays that he hopes will help preserve the humanistic core of the medical profession. Because of its brevity (250 pages), he apologizes for its focus on "Western medicine since the inception of the scientific method"(p.xi), but does note that he acknowledges "the continuity between ancient and modern medicine...[and] the contributions of the Orient, and of epochs predating the dominance of the rational spirit" (p.xi).What distinguishes this volume beyond the writing is the thematic organization. It begins with the Rise of Anatomy and Surgery, but then moves to Vitalism and Mechanism, The Mystery of Procreation,  and Pestilence and Mankind, before finishing with a look at Concepts of Disease, The Diagnostic Process and Therapy (including a brief focus on psychiatry). In the last section, Some Concluding Thoughts, Gonzalez-Crussi returns to his motivations for writing this short history, citing the mixed blessings of scientific progress whose gains, for example, are offset by those who "appear to try to 'medicalize' every aspect of human life" (p.210).

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A Little Life

Yanagihara, Hanya

Last Updated: May-17-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

After first meeting as college roommates, Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm make their way through college and then onto New York City to pursue career interests. We follow them through the subsequent decades as Jude becomes a highly effective attorney, Willem a famous actor, JB an acclaimed artist, and Malcolm a prize-winning architect.  

What starts as a cluster of four eventually separates into an orbit of Willem, JB, and Malcolm around Jude at the center. The gravitational force pulling the three others towards Jude is the fidelity that can form among college roommates and a love that has bonded them together even more. But, there is also a strong sense among the three that Jude needs them for both physical and emotional support. At first, and for a good long time, it’s just a sense, but they later come to learn that their intuitions are right, that Jude does indeed need them and why. Over the years covered in the novel, a second orbit forms around Jude comprising a surgeon-cum-close friend, adoptive parents, a work colleague, and a neighbor. They, too, know Jude needs them, but only learn why late into their relationships. Until then, they are alternatively and often simultaneously worried, angry, flummoxed, and stymied about what’s at the root of his ambulatory limitations and severe leg pains, and why he cuts himself with terrifying frequency.  

Through a fractured narrative sprinkled with artfully-constructed subliminal hints, Yanagihara reveals Jude’s life before he arrived at college. She tells of Jude’s beginnings as a foundling taken in at a monastery. This hopeful start for Jude, however, becomes a childhood and adolescence of unrelenting, horrific, sexual assault and torture—when at the monastery, when on the road after being kidnapped by a monastery brother, when in protective custody, and even when he is able to escape. He arrives at college bearing the psychological and physical consequences of these experiences, but not openly displayed to a degree that yields more than a few hints of a traumatic past. With the support of the people surrounding him in  his adult life, he is able to become a highly accomplished attorney, and to achieve some measure of ease and happiness from time to time. The support he receives, however, is not enough to protect him from the consequences of further psychological and physical assaults, including his self-mutilation practices, and tragic losses. Ultimately, Jude engineers his own final tragedy.
 

Some of the people left behind suffer from more than Jude’s loss. His friend the surgeon wonders whether he enabled Jude’s self-cutting by always patching him up and never committing him to an inpatient psychiatric unit. Jude’s adoptive father relives the loss of his first son at a very young age to a rare, degenerative, neurological disease. Nearly all the figures in this novel experience suffering in some form or another, but this is more the story of Jude; how the people around him tried to get him past the horrors of his childhood and adolescence, but eventually and sadly to no avail. 

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Summary:

This is the third book in a series on the history of medicine and medical education by Kenneth M. Ludmerer, a practicing physician and historian of medicine at Washington University of St. Louis. The first, Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education, published in 1985, dealt with the history of medical schools and medical education in the US from their origins in the 19th century to the late 20th century. In 1999 he published Time to Heal: Medical Education from 1900 to the Era of Managed Care. This book, Let Me Heal: The Opportunity to Preserve Excellence in American Medicine, published in 2015, is a sweeping history of graduate medical education in the United States from its inception to the current day.

In 13 chapters and 431 pages (334 pages of text, 97 of reference and index), Ludmerer traces the residency from early apprenticeship days to its metamorphosis (at Johns Hopkins, of which he is a justly proud medical school alumnus) into the embryonic form of what we now call an internship and residency. Giants like “The Four Doctors” (to use the title of John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of William S. Halsted, William Osler, Howard A. Kelly and William H. Welch - but known simply as “The Big Four” at Hopkins) were the godfathers of the American postgraduate medical model which emphasized clinical science, teaching, patient care and research. The rise of acute care teaching hospitals as the venue of postgraduate medical education, and not the medical school or university, is an interesting story and one which Ludmerer tells in great detail over a number of chapters. It is one replete with predictable turf wars, professional turmoil and politics, and societal change in all aspects of the 20th century. This last phenomenon receives its due attention in every chapter but is dissected in meticulous detail in the final chapters dealing with the Libby Zion case, duty hours and the increasing role of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) in postgraduate medical education.

Beginning in the 1930’s, American medicine grew increasingly specialized and, in the ensuing decades, subspecialized, much to the consternation of pre-WW II general practitioners who, suddenly and for the first time, found themselves in the minority, in numbers and in influence, of their own profession. Concomitant with the phenomenon of specialization was the imprimatur by academic medicine of the structured, sanctioned residency as the sole route to specialty practice with, of course, the birth of associated accrediting agencies. Along with the move, physically, academically and politically, of postgraduate medical education to acute care teaching hospitals, the control of this education moved from medical schools to the profession at large.

Ludmerer deftly describes the “era of abundance”, the salad days of postgraduate medical education in the 1950’s and 1960’s when giants still made rounds on the floors of postgraduate medical venues; funds were plentiful; outside criticism was an as yet unborn bête noir; and social, economic and governmental curbs were only a tiny distant cloud in an otherwise blue sky. Ludmerer is correct in attributing much of medicine’s professional and social hegemony as well as its transient immunity to criticism in this era to the following evident successes of medicine: antibiotics; initial inroads into antineoplastic therapies; startling technological innovations in imaging; a burgeoning spate of life-saving vaccines; and spectacular advances in surgery, especially pediatric, cardiothoracic and transplant. Fatal diseases of the 1930’s and 1940’s were now often cured in days and of historical interest only.

Like all salad days, those of medicine eventually succumbed to new historical forces: foreign medical graduates in the workplace; the ever-growing financial burden of the residency; and economic pressures like Medicare and its associated regulation. There were other factors, too: professional and societal expectations of standardization and quality care; the explosion in subspecialties; the horrid wastefulness of unnecessary diagnostic tests and therapies borne of an earlier undisciplined abundance; the supercession of the intimate primary physician-patient relationship by the fragmented care of specialists and the rising supremacy of technology over personalized histories and careful physical examinations (why percuss the abdomen when you can get a CAT scan?). Dissatisfaction amongst residents is a dominant theme Ludmerer rightly raises early and often: the conflict and tension between education and service, between reasonable work and “scut”, between being a student and a worker (at times, quite a lowly one).

”High throughput” - the much more rapid turnaround time between admission to an hospital and discharge - has radically changed forever the entire nature of postgraduate medical education, and not for the better in the eyes of the author and of this reviewer, who were fellow residents a lifetime ago at Washington University in St. Louis. This decreased length of stay, a result of the remarkable improvements in diagnosis and therapy mentioned above, meant that the working life of providers (attending physicians, residents, physician assistants and nurses) was in high gear from admission to discharge, thereby increasing tension, likelihood for error and, exponentially, the workload for the resident while simultaneously and irrevocably damaging the possibility of a meaningful, careful provider-patient relationship (like a friendship, of which it is a subspecies, such relationships can not be rushed) and decreasing opportunities for learning. Medicare; changing patient populations; societal and professional disgruntlement; the Libby Zion mess and the ensuing cascade of regulations from all sides, but most especially the ACGME - all receive careful and systematic treatment in the final chapters of this monograph.

Ludmerer ends with a chapter listing what he sees as opportunities for achieving (or re-achieving) excellence. Indeed, he has made it the book’s subtitle. They are the following: a plea for the ACGME to revise its 2011 duty-hour regulations; an equally earnest hope that interns and residents will soon realize a more manageable patient load; a related wish for academic medicine to decrease the unfortunate occurrence of economic exploitation of house officers; a suggestion that this annotator shares, i.e., that the process of supervision, improved (but inadequately) with recent ACGME requirements, be further strengthened; and a hope that medical schools will restore teaching to the central place in the institutional value system it used to enjoy. Ludmerer issues a call for the more vigorous promotion of “an agenda of safety and quality in patient care” (page 312) and suggests that the education of residents be expanded to include venues outside in-patient sites. Elsewhere in the book, he also expresses the expectation that the inclusion into clinical teaching of private patients alongside “ward” patients, more feasible with recent improvements in the re-imbursement of medical care, be routine and maximized to the enjoyment and benefit of all concerned.

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Summary:

Samuel Shem's (Stephen Bergman) The House of God, first published in 1978, has sold over two million copies in over 50 countries (see annotation).  Its 30th anniversary was marked by publication of Return to The House of God: Medical Resident Education 1978-2008, a collection of essays offering historical perspectives of residency education, philosophical perspectives, literary criticism, and women's perspectives, among others. Contributors include such well-known scholars as Kenneth Ludmerer, Howard Brody, and Anne Hudson Jones, as well as physician-writers Perri Klass, Abigal Zuger, Susan Onthank Mates, and Jack Coulehan.  The closing section, "Comments from the House of Shem," includes an essay by psychologist and scholar Janet Surrey (Bergman's wife) and one by "both" Samuel Shem and Stephen Bergman. 

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Cauda Equina

Lehrer, Riva

Last Updated: May-05-2016
Annotated by:
Lam, Gretl

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Painting

Summary:

A woman stands nude with her back to the viewer. Her arms are raised, hands interlaced behind her neck. Her back is deformed and scarred, but her body, depicted in warm flesh tones, looks solid and capable. She stands uncomfortably but patiently, as if she is waiting for a medical exam in a doctor’s office, or as if she is inviting the audience to look and learn.  

A skeleton is superimposed anatomically over the lower half of the woman’s body, including her lower spine, pelvis, and femurs. A round form surrounds the lower spine which looks abnormal. In the blue background is a skeleton of a horse. The horse is angled away from the audience, such that we see its rear and tail most prominently. But its head is turned to look backwards, so that its empty eye sockets appear to be peering at the woman and at the audience.  

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Sheri / Dragon

Lehrer, Riva

Last Updated: May-05-2016
Annotated by:
Lam, Gretl

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Drawing

Summary:

A woman drawn in charcoal crouches tensely on all fours, arms wide as if proudly claiming territory, but with one hand raised in hesitation. Her legs are strong, and her breasts are exposed animalistically. But the viewer’s eyes are drawn to her face, which looks sad and weary.

A green dragon is super-imposed onto the body of the woman. It glares at the audience, snarling toothily with a red open mouth. Its head is raised proudly, and its wings are spread defiantly. It is ready to attack. But the dragon looks partly mechanical, and it fits onto the woman like a costume, with her head, chest, arms, and legs exposed. It is armor that simultaneously protects yet burdens her.

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The Heart

de Kerangal, Maylis

Last Updated: Apr-25-2016

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The story of The Heart is a simple, linear structure.  A car accident renders a young Frenchman, Simon, brain-dead. A medical team proposes harvesting organs, and his parents, after some turmoil, agree. That’s the first half of the book, the provenance of this specific heart. The second half describes its delivery for transplantation. Administrators find recipients, one of them a woman in Paris. Simon’s heart is transported there by plane and sewn into her chest. All this in 24 hours.  
            
The narration is complex, with flashbacks, overlapping times, and literary art that is compelling. There are 28 sections to the story but without numbers or chapter headings, and these are often broken up into half a dozen shorter sections. We have an impression of stroboscopic flashes on the action, with high intensity focus. These create a mosaic that we assemble into dramatic pictures. Even major characters arrive without names, and we soon figure them out.  
 

Simon.  He’s called the donor, although he had no choice in the matter. At 19 years of age he’s trying to find a path in life.  A Maori tattoo is a symbol for that search. He has a girlfriend, Juliette. He fades away as a character (except in others’ memories) and his heart takes center stage.  

Marianne and Sean, Simon’s parents.  Her emotions, as we would expect, range widely, especially during discussion of whether Simon’s organs can be transplanted. Father Sean has a Polynesian origin and cultural heritage.


Pierre Révol, Thomas Rémige, and Cordélia Owl are respectively the ICU physician, nurse, and the transplant coordinator. These are vividly drawn, with unusual qualities. Skilled professionals, they are the team the supplies the heart.  

Marthe Carrare, Claire Méjan, and Virgilio Breva are a national administrator, the recipient, and a surgeon. Described in memorable language, they are the receiving team.              

The characters’ names give hints of de Kerangal’s range. S
ince the 1789 Revolution Marianne has been a well-known French national symbol for common people and democracy, but Virgilio Breva is from Italy and Cordélia (recalling King Lear) Owl (as in wise?) has a grandmother from Bristol, England. We learn of personal habits regarding tobacco, peyote, sex, and singing. Medicine is part of a larger world of people of many sorts.              

Even minor characters, such as Simon’s girlfriend Juliette and other medical personnel are touching and memorable.
             

These characters animate the story with their passion, mystery, even heroism. While we don’t know the final outcome of the implanted heart, the text shows the professionalism of the medical team, the French national system that evidently works, sensitive care of patients and families, and in the last pages, rituals of affirmation for medical art and for patients.
             

There is richness in de Kerangal’s style. At times it is direct, reflecting the thoughts of characters. At times it is ornate, even baroque. She uses many images and metaphors, often with large, epic qualities. A very long sentence about the over-wrought parents describes them as “alone in the world, and exhaustion breaks over them like a tidal wave” (p. 141).  The style uses many similes, often with dramatic and unexpected comparisons. There are references to geology, astronomy, even American TV hospital drama. The style is at times lyric…we might say “operatic.”  One page about Cordélia is very, very funny.
        
  
In a different tone, the details of medicine, law, and ethics are carefully presented, and visual imagery puts us in the hospital rooms, the OR, and crowded streets around a soccer game. Throughout it appears that translator Sam Taylor has done an admirable job. 
             

The text invites us to consider large visions of wholeness. All the major characters seek some comprehensive unity to their lives, and they avoid orthodoxies such as religion, patriotism, and economic gain. Sean has his Polynesian heritage and boat-building passion, which he has shared with Simon. Cordélia, at 25, is an excellent nurse, wise beyond her years in some ways, but is as dazzled by a man as any teenaged girl. Nurse Rémige has his master’s in philosophy, loves the song of rare birds, and is, himself, a serious singer.  

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

This book represents the 1915 American edition of Brooke's collected poems and is introduced by George Edward Woodberry, an American critic of poetry. A table of contents of titles follows the introduction. Ninety-four poems - all rhymed and almost all of them formal - are thematically arranged on 163 pages.

Thirty six are sonnets. Most of the poems are brief, under two pages in length, and deal with love or ardor (59), death or aging (43), or various combinations of love/ardor and death/aging (33). Only three treat subjects one could call primarily medical or related to medicine: "Thoughts on the Shape of the Human Body" (p. 59), "Paralysis" (p.73) and "Channel Passage" ( p. 90). However, the threads of death, aging, the limitations of one's physicality and loneliness - no strangers to medical humanities courses - are ubiquitous.

His famous sonnet sequence of five poems composed while a soldier in WWI occurs halfway through the book under the grouping "1914." Following the poems is a biographical note by poet Margaret Lavington. There is a photogravure frontispiece dated 1914 with a reproduction of the poet's autograph beneath. The book has no index.

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My Father's Brain

Franzen, Jonathan

Last Updated: Apr-12-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Jonathan Franzen tells the story of his father’s slow and inexorable decline from Alzheimer’s disease. His story is a familiar one, and one that millions of people can now tell: at first the initial odd behaviors and memory failures attributed to various causes other than dementia, then the diagnosis and medical interventions to stem the inevitable, and finally the inevitable. While Franzen also describes the toll his father’s dementia exacts on the immediate family—as well as some truths it uncovers about his parents’ marriage—he does not put a significant emphasis on family effects.  

Interwoven in Franzen’s recounting of his father’s plight are a few digressions on Alzheimer’s disease. In one he wonders, as many others have, about whether Alzheimer’s disease is more a medicalization of certain behaviors than the result of brain pathology, or otherwise just “ordinary mental illness being trendily misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s.” (p. 19) In others, he briefly summarizes the well-known theory involving plaques and neurofibril tangles as a cause of Alzheimer’s, and thoughts on how memories form and work in the brain. In yet one other digression, Franzen reminds us that Alzheimer’s disease as originally described in 1906 was a rare type of dementia characterized by early onset in middle age and rapid progression. He further notes that it was not until the latter part of the 20th century when Alzheimer’s disease was tagged as the fifth leading cause of death and the disease of the century, and only through the efforts of a coalition comprising clinical scientists, politicians, and patient advocates. 

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