Showing 61 - 70 of 3132 annotations

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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Attending Others

Volck, Brian

Last Updated: Apr-11-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir of a life in medicine takes the writer from St. Louis to a Navajo reservation to Central America to the east coast and from urban hospitals to ill-equipped rural clinics. It offers a wide range of reflections on encounters with patients that widen and deepen his sense of calling and  understanding of what it means to do healing work.  He learns to listen to tribal elders, to what children communicate without words, to worried parents, and to his own intuition while calling on all the skills he acquired in a rigorous medical education.  Always drawn to writing, Volck takes his writing work (and play) as seriously as his medical practice, and muses on the role of writing in the medical life as he goes along.

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This is a collection of essays by (mostly British) artists, performers, and academics on the intersection between medicine and theater.  It appears in a series entitled “Performance and Science: Interdisciplinary Dialogues” put out by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.  The introduction makes it clear there are many points of convergence beyond the scope of this volume, such as how medicine is depicted in plays and therapeutic uses of theater (e.g. drama therapy).  The focus here, then, is on “the ways in which the body is understood, displayed and represented in performance” (p. 11).  And the “medical body” of the title refers to one that is ’acted upon’ by illness or disability and/or by the diagnostic and therapeutic activities of the medical profession” (Ibid).  

The book is divided into three sections: “Performing the Medical,” “Performing Patients,” and “Performing Body Parts.”  The first section includes an essay by Roger Kneebone, a surgeon, who explores the parallels between his field and theatrical performance.  Kneebone has devised simulations that enable laypersons to get a sense of what it is like to participate in surgery.  In his view, this encourages cross-fertilization of ideas.  For example, his collaboration with a jazz pianist has demonstrated to him that musical improvisation, in its spontaneity, is somewhat like emergency surgery.  And his work with a choreographer led to the development of a dance piece depicting the movements of a surgical team during a procedure.   
 

In the second section we read about Brian Lobel, a theater artist who has used his experience with testicular cancer to create a solo performance piece entitled “BALL.”  This not only allowed Lobel to “regain a sense of mastery over the illness experience” (p. 88), but has also earned him a niche within the theater community.  Lobel now works with other cancer sufferers helping them develop their own narratives in a project called “Fun with Cancer Patients.”  

The final section of the book includes a description of “Under Glass,” a forty-minute performance piece consisting of eight specimen jars each containing a solo performer, said to be “at once museum exhibit, gallery and medical laboratory” (p. 141), which also provides the book's front cover image. "Under Glass" was devised by Clod Ensemble, whose Performing Medicine project is known for its teaching programs in numerous London medical schools.  Meant to provoke discourse about the public display of specimens, it brings to mind the Victorian “freak show” as well as the more recent controversial touring Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated cadavers and body parts.

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The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

Mosley, Walter

Last Updated: Mar-07-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Walter Mosley writes in various genres but is probably best known for his mysteries. His 2010 novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, could be considered another one of his mysteries, but the mystery plot takes a secondary role. Featured more prominently is the struggle the main character, Ptolemy Grey, has with dementia.   

The reader first encounters Ptolemy Grey when he is 91 years old and living alone in an apartment he has inhabited in South Central LA for more than 60 years. Both he and the apartment are in appalling shape. The apartment is cluttered, disorganized, and dysfunctional—as is his aging brain. He knows his mind is failing and seems to him as if it “had fallen in on itself like an old barn left unmended and untended through too many seasons.” (p.153)

Throughout the novel, Mosley presents aspects of dementia and some of its oddities. For example, while Ptolemy is riding on a bus through his town, certain sights trigger clear memories from his childhood 80 years before. At the same time he is unsure where he is going or why. Mosley also shows how people can possibly realize they are slipping into dementia, for example, when Ptolemy stops talking to a friend once “he could see in her eyes he wasn’t making sense.” (p. 122)

Ptolemy’s great-grandnephew Reggie provides him with the assistance he needs to barely maintain his lonely existence in squalid conditions. When Reggie dies, a new person comes into his life. Robyn, a 17-year-old orphan living with Ptolemy’s grandniece, begins to straighten out his apartment and then his mind.    

As Robyn gets Ptolemy’s apartment more organized and functional, Ptolemy’s mind starts to get more organized and functional as well, but only a bit more. Unsatisfied with his progress, Robyn takes Ptolemy to a physician who has an experimental drug for dementia. Ptolemy is told that if he takes the drug he will regain his mental acuity but probably not live more than a few weeks, or months, at best. Without hesitation he takes the drug—“I wanna make it so I could think good for just a couple a mont’s, Doc” (p. 126)—and rapidly regains many memories and mental capacities. During the time he has with his newfound mental agility, Ptolemy is able to make good on a commitment from his childhood and to solve the mystery of Reggie’s death. While the experimental drug enables Ptolemy to wrap up his business, it also produces a rather violent end to his life.

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When Breath Becomes Air

Kalanithi, Paul

Last Updated: Feb-18-2016
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Paul Kalanithi, diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer when he was a neurosurgery resident at Stanford University, was faced with a decision. Should he truncate his career in neurosurgery in order to become a writer - a career he had always envisioned for himself after completing a couple of decades of neurosurgery practice? Married to Lucy Kalanithi, an internist he had met in medical school, Paul’s career and future had looked bright and promising. But as he entered his final year of a seven-year residency, symptoms of excruciating back pain and significant weight loss began. Garbed in a hospital gown, he examines his own CT scan – this is how we meet Paul at the beginning of the Prologue. He then writes of the relatively brief period of misdiagnosis prior to the CT scan. With the initial negative plain x-rays, he is started on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. But breakthrough pain and continued weight loss leads to the CT. Paul the physician understands the death sentence the images portend; Paul the patient is just beginning his journey. The diagnosis and treatment cause him to reassess his decisions about his life, to decide to father a child even though he knows he will never see the child grow up, and ultimately to write a memoir, essentially for his daughter.

Paul had graduated from Stanford with undergraduate and master’s degrees which reflected his dual love of literature and science. He combined these in a second master’s degree from Cambridge University in the history and philosophy of science and medicine before attending Yale for his medical degree. He and his wife return to California for residencies. The book is largely a blend of his dual interests: a deep and abiding love and faith in literature and how words can reveal truths, and a passion for the practice and science of neurosurgery. The rupture of fatal illness into his life interrupts his dogged trajectory towards an academic medical career, and, like all ruptures, confounds expectations and reorients priorities.

The book has five parts: a foreword by physician-writer Abraham Verghese, who notes the stunning prose Paul produced for an initial article in The New York Times and exhorts the reader to “Listen to Paul” (page xix); a brief prologue; two parts by Paul Kalanithi (Part I: In Perfect Health I Begin, and Part II: Cease Not till Death); and a stunning, heart-breaking epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi. In the epilogue, written with as many literary references and allusions as her husband’s writing includes, Lucy provides the reader with a gentle and loving portrait of her husband in his final days, reaffirms his joy in their daughter Cady, and chronicles how she kept her promise to her dying husband to shepherd his manuscript into print.

The bulk of the book is memoir – a childhood in Arizona and an aversion to pursuing a life in medicine due to his hard-working cardiologist-father, experiences at Stanford which eventually led him to reverse his decision to avoid a medical career, the stages of his medical career and caring for patients, and his devastating cancer. Though initially responsive to treatment—and indeed, the treatment enables him to complete his residency and decide to father a child with Lucy—the cancer is, as prognosticated from the diagnosis, fatal.

What makes this memoir so much more than an exercise in memory and a tribute to the herculean effort to write while sapped by cancer and its treatment, are the philosophical turns, the clear love of words and literature, and the poignancy of the writing. He begins reading fiction and nonfiction again: “I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language…I needed words to go forward.” (pp 148-9) Paul’s writing ends with what is arguably some of the most poetic prose ever written. He concludes by speaking directly to his infant daughter: “When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” (p. 199)

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Annotated by:
Lerner, Barron

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Perhaps no topic in the history of medicine has been explored as much as the lobotomy.  Psychiatrists, historians and journalists have weighed in on this controversial topic, and the procedure has been featured in a number of Hollywood films.

Yet there is nothing like a narrative of a specific lobotomy patient to draw us into the subject anew.  And that is why Kate Clifford Larson’s new book, Rosemary: The Forgotten Kennedy Daughter, is so compelling—even if we already know the sad outcome of Rosemary Kennedy’s life.

Originally devised in 1935 by the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, the lobotomy involved drilling holes in the skull and using a blade to sever nerve fibers running from the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain.  Moniz believed that psychiatric symptoms were caused by longstanding faulty nerve connections.  Severing them, and allowing new connections to form, he postulated, would help treat patients with intractable mental illness, such as schizophrenia and its paranoid delusions.

America’s chief proponent of lobotomy was Washington, D.C. neurologist Walter J. Freeman who, working with neurosurgeon James W. Watts, reported in 1937 that 13 of 20 patients undergoing the operation had improved.  Freeman would later devise his own procedure, the transorbital lobotomy, in which he actually used a mallet to pound an ice pick through the patient’s eye socket into the brain, then moved the pick around blindly to cut the nerve fibers.

Among the first histories of lobotomy was psychologist Elliot S. Valenstein’s  Great and Desperate Cures (1986), which strongly criticized Freeman and his contemporaries as overzealous physicians who did far more harm than good, creating docile and apathetic individuals no longer capable of caring for themselves.  Physician-historian Joel Braslow’s Mental Ills and Bodily Cures (1997) argued convincingly that a main motivation for the popularity of lobotomies—roughly 40,000 would be performed in the United States by the 1960s—was to enable staff members to maintain order in crowded, understaffed institutions.   In Last Resort (1998), historian Jack D. Pressman made the provocative claim that lobotomy represented the best science of the day and that, at least in some cases, it allowed patients to return home with fewer psychiatric symptoms.

Rosemary Kennedy was born in 1918, the third of what would eventually be nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy.  Joe was a successful businessman and investor who later entered politics, first as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1932 to 1935 and then as U.S. Ambassador to Britain from 1938 to 1940.  At an early age, it was clear that Rosemary was not as mentally sharp as her two older brothers, Joe Jr. and John.  Larson hypothesizes that Rosemary’s “intellectual disability” occurred at birth, when a nurse forcibly kept her in her mother’s womb—perhaps without adequate oxygenation—while waiting for the doctor to arrive.

It was Rosemary’s blessing and curse to be born into the high-powered and prominent Kennedy family.  Her parents left no stone unturned in trying to help their daughter, sending her to special schools and programs around the world.  But they simply could not tolerate her lack of improvement.  Rosemary was a terrible speller and writer, socially awkward and at times unruly.  Joe Sr., in particular, worried about the negative ramifications to his sons’ possible political careers if word got out about their “retarded” sister.

Reading about Rosemary’s first two decades, and knowing that her lobotomy is approaching, is truly heartbreaking.  Writing letters home from her various placements, she was so eager to please.  “I would do anything to make you happy,” she told her father in 1934 at the age of 16.  “I hate to Disppoint [sic] you in anyway.”

When the Kennedys first arrived in England in 1938, Rosemary, her mother Rose and her younger sister Kathleen were presented to the king and queen.  For once, the circumstances tilted in Rosemary’s favor.  The event was smashing.  Photographs show Rosemary, who had become a very attractive young woman, resplendent in a “picture dress of white tulle.”  She felt, she said, like Cinderella.

But when the family returned to the United States in 1940, with war approaching in Europe, the situation was no different than it had always been.  Plus, now in her early twenties, Rosemary’s moodiness and emotional outbursts were becoming more frequent.

Lobotomy had gotten a lot of press in 1941, particularly in a May article in the Saturday Evening Post that highlighted the work of Freeman and Watts.  And while this piece warned about the dangers of the procedure, it mostly praised its ability to make people with mental illness into “useful members of society.”  At some point, Joe Kennedy met with Freeman and decided that Rosemary should undergo the operation.  Larson does not unearth exactly how the decision was reached—or what Rosemary was told.  But it seems to mostly have been Joe’s doing.

The problem, of course, was that lobotomy was not meant for what Rosemary had—essentially a low IQ.  But Joseph Kennedy, in conjunction with her doctors, had convinced himself she had an “agitated depression,” and thus was a candidate.  That Freeman was a zealot for the operation, as is well documented in journalist Jack El-Hai’s The Lobotomist (2005), did not help.  Most tragically, when Rosemary underwent her lobotomy some time in November 1941, something went “horribly awry.”  Patients were kept awake during the procedure and asked to talk or sing to help guide the surgeon’s scalpel.  But in Rosemary’s case, when Watts made his final cut of brain tissue, she became incoherent.  “The operation,” Larson writes, “destroyed a crucial part of Rosemary’s brain and erased years of emotional, physical and intellectual development, leaving her completely incapable of taking care of herself.”

The rest of Rosemary discusses her life after the lobotomy until her death in 2005.  She spent most of these years at a Catholic residential institution in Wisconsin.  Most cruelly, family members rarely visited, trying to render invisible what had happened.  To the Kennedys’ credit, in later years they corrected this error and brought Rosemary for visits to Hyannis Post and other family outposts.  There are only a few photographs in the book from this later era, but they help to humanize the woman who suffered for so long.

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