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Learning Sickness

Lang, James

Last Updated: Feb-11-2010
Annotated by:
Holmes, Martha Stoddard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

James Lang was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 1996, when he was twenty-six years old. Five years later, however, a particularly severe bout with Crohn's, including a hospital stay, dramatically changed his relationship to the disease. Lang's memoir explores his ongoing relationship to Crohn's disease, both in the context of medical reassessments and diagnostic adjustments and in relation to his personal and professional development in his first year as a tenure-track professor of college English.

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Annotated by:
Holmes, Martha Stoddard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Anthology (Essays)

Summary:

Most of the twenty works in this anthology are first-person narrative essays. They represent a wide range of women’s experiences of embodiment, spanning both the average lifespan and the particularity of individual lives, focusing on puberty and menstruation, weight-consciousness and eating disorders, facial disfigurement, multiple sclerosis, infertility and pregnancy, cosmetic treatments and surgery, breast cancer, and aging. A few essays offer a valuable cross-cultural lens on the experience of embodiment.

Hanan al-Shaykh’s Inside a Moroccan Bath (see this database) explores her dual experiences of being stigmatized in Middle Eastern culture for her thinness, and then having her stigma recast as value when she moved to a European city. Judith Ortiz Cofer’s "The Story of My Body," which begins "I was born a white girl in Puerto Rico, but became a brown girl when I came to live in the United States," (299) offers another perspective on the cultural instability of the criteria for female beauty. Linda Hogan’s "Department of the Interior" positions her experience of embodiment within the intertwined contexts of American Indian culture and the physical landscape of the West.

Some of the contributors are well-known for their texts on embodiment ( Lucy Grealy, Nancy Mairs, and Naomi Wolf, for example), whereas others are well-known creative writers (Margaret Atwood and Linda Hogan). Pam Houston’s Out of Habit, I Start Apologizing is also annotated in this database.

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Annotated by:
Holmes, Martha Stoddard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This memoir purposefully intertwines a personal and professional coming of age with the chronic illness that shaped it. Roney's stories of her adolescence, college years, and beyond (she is now a graduate student approaching her fortieth birthday) integrate the story of her diagnosis with juvenile diabetes around age 12 and her changing approaches to living with, rather than simply "managing," her illness.

How diabetes inflected Roney's development as a woman, including such issues as body image; food, eating, and weight; and sexuality and love relationships, is a recurrent focus, with her unsatisfactory relationships with men often taking center stage. One chapter addresses her decision, in the face of fears about blindness, to become a writer instead of a visual artist. Other sections address travel and exercise, both explored as solo experiences and as struggles negotiated in the company of friends and strangers. Roney's experiences with family members and medical professionals in the context of her illness are an occasional focus.

While in most of the memoir Roney positions herself as an ill person in relationships with healthy people, in two sections she explores her relationship to others with diabetes: a woman her own age whose illness has made her completely blind, and her aging cat. Throughout the memoir, Roney moves from her own experience to broader philosophical reflections on the social construction of illness, especially the way that interpersonal relationships shaped by "invisible" disabilities like diabetes reflect cultural beliefs about illness and how it changes personhood.

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Summary:

This DVD, a documentary of a medical student retreat to a museum, illustrates an approach to cultivating empathic understanding in medical students and residents by using the visual arts.  Florence Gelo, D.Min, created the arts program and the video. She is Behavioral Science Coordinator, Family Medicine Residency, Drexyl University College of Medicine. Students observe closely four paintings and are encouraged to experience their feelings about what they are seeing, and to express those feelings. The paintings are Prometheus Bound (Peter Paul Rubens 1618), Massacre of the Innocents (Pacecco de Rosa 1640), Rachel Weeping (Charles Wilson Peale 1618), and The Agnew Clinic (Thomas Eakins 1889; see annotation in this database).

Prometheus Bound is a disturbing scene of an eagle ripping the liver out of Prometheus. Students comment on the nakedness. the vulnerable position and the helpless expression on the face of this strong man, and on the eye contact between the eagle and Prometheus. In Massacre of the Innocents Dr. Gelo calls our attention to the faces of the mothers, helpless to save their children from the swords. In Rachel Weeping Gelo asks the students if they noticed the vials of medicine before the days of allopathic medicine.  Did they notice the one tear dropping from Rachel's face? (Peale added the medicine vials and his wife weeping to the original portrait of his infant daughter Margaret who died of smallpox.)

Two physician speakers, Horace DeLisser, and Rhonda Soricelli provide additional commentary about how engagement with a painting is similar to engaging with a patient, and how learning technology-focusing on the scientific and the medical- detracts students from learning to look at the big picture and the humanistic side of medicine.  Traditional medical education does not teach doctors to be present to patients, to sit by their sides, to listen and invite dialogue of suffering and to not deny those aspects of what it means to be ill.  Dr. DeLisser further acknowledged his personal struggles with feelings of frustration, anger and grief when patients died in the ICU.  The importance of talking about the vulnerability of physicians, the concerns about what else they might have done, propelled him to develop Grieving Rounds.

A cancer survivor contrasts a "callous" physician's response to her care with  another physician who exemplified someone who has the expertise not only around the disease, but  has the ability to acknowledge the whole person and offer his companionship to be there to the very end: "...what we're going to do is....We'll take this step by step."


 

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Hygiene

Petrushevskaya, Ludmilla

Last Updated: Jan-30-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

A stranger knocks on the door of the apartment occupied by the R. family. He warns them that an epidemic is spreading in town. Death usually ensues in 3 days and is preceded by swelling, blisters, and redness of the skin. Mice are suspected to carry the disease. The young man appears ill but claims to be a survivor and now immune to the epidemic. He advises the family to remain indoors, avoid mice, and practice strict hygiene. He offers to bring food. The family is skeptical and declines his offer of assistance.

Soon the city is ravaged by the disease. TV and phone stop working. Violence and looting are rampant. Nikolai, the father, regularly goes out at night to rob food and supplies for his family. Sometimes he kills. When he returns home, he always cleans himself thoroughly. He lives with his wife, Elena, their daughter, and Elena's parents.

The family's cat is outside on the balcony and hungry so they bring it inside. The animal eats a mouse, and afterwards the little girl kisses the cat on its mouth. The adults are horrified. They quarantine the child in her bedroom along with the cat. After 3 days, there is no sound or activity in the bedroom. The girl is presumed dead. The cat is alive and escapes. The child's parents and grandparents manifest signs of the infection and die.

Six days after his initial visit, the young man who warned the R. family returns to the apartment building. The place is silent except for the meowing of a cat. The stranger breaks into the apartment and sees 4 dead bodies. Inside the barricaded bedroom, he finds the little girl alive and recovering from the infection. Next to her in bed is the pet cat.

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The Diagnosis

Lightman, Alan

Last Updated: Jan-21-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

While riding on a commuter train, Bill Chalmers suddenly forgets who he is and where he is headed. His amnesia is accompanied first by a numbness of his hands and then later his legs. Eventually he is confined to a wheelchair and dependent on his family and a home nurse to care for him. Despite extensive testing and consultations with a variety of doctors, no one can make a definitive diagnosis of his illness.

Chalmers is subjected to many empirical treatments including antidepressants, steroids, plasmaphoresis, and psychotherapy, but his health continues to deteriorate and he loses his job. His wife and son become victims of his predicament. By the end of the story, Chalmers gains insight into his life and discovers that only his dignity still remains in his control.

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The Island

Herling, Gustaw

Last Updated: Jan-21-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

The Island is a collection of three stories sharing a similar setting (Italy) and populated by several characters who are outcasts. In the title story, the relationship between residents of an island and its medieval monastery, the Certosa, decays over time. When a talented stonemason is accidentally injured, his damaged senses are replaced by pain and suffering. His struggle and sacrifice, however, ultimately result in redemption for all those who inhabit "The Island."

In the eighteenth century, a 20 year old leper is condemned to live the remainder of his life in a tower fittingly known as the Tower of Fright. Although befriended by a stranger, the occupant of "The Tower" must nevertheless endure solitude, and he does so with the patience and grace of a saint. With the backdrop of a plague, "The Second Coming" is a medieval tale that recounts the torture of a doubting priest, an unknown pilgrim’s participation in a miracle, and the death of a pope.

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Gilead

Robinson, Marilynne

Last Updated: Jan-21-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

John Ames narrates this story in the form of a lengthy letter to his young son. Ames is a 76-year-old minister suffering from angina pectoris and heart failure. He has spent almost all of his life in Gilead, a small town in Iowa. His first wife died during childbirth along with a baby girl. Ames remarried a younger woman who is now 41. They have a son almost 7 years old.

Because Ames believes his death is close at hand, he pens a missive to the boy. Its purpose is to teach his son about all the important things in life Ames may not be around to share with him. During the course of composing the letter, Ames reflects upon his own existence. He recalls the experiences of his father and grandfather who were also ministers.

Reverend Ames likes to think, read, and pray. Born in 1880, he has lived through three wars, the Great Depression, a pandemic of influenza, and droughts. His hope is that his young son will grow into a brave and useful man.

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Saint Ursula and Her Maidens

O'Connell, Mary

Last Updated: Jan-21-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Five women find fellowship and comfort in the swimming pool at a community center managed by Ursuline nuns. Each woman suffers from a chronic disease--lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. One is also being treated for ovarian cancer. The diverse group includes a pregnant woman, an elderly nun, and a retired nurse who currently peddles Avon products. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they participate in aquatic therapy. The one-hour sessions temporarily soothe the body and boost morale. It is a welcome reprieve from the burden of disease and the complications of life.

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Ooh Baby Baby

Jones, Thom

Last Updated: Jan-21-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

An aging plastic surgeon afflicted with diabetes examines his life and is forced to confront death and the failures of his past. Dr. Moses Galen is a 69 year old California physician with a penchant for sex, Jaguars, and boxing but a fear of making commitments and experiencing a slow death. He spends a weekend with his girlfriend Linda, a trauma surgeon in her forties. After they have sex, he experiences chest pain that he mistakenly attributes to heartburn. Dr. Galen had coronary artery bypass surgery only three years ago and figures it should last at least ten.

He wakes up early in the morning to work out on his punching bag. His chest pain returns and is now accompanied by ventricular fibrillation. He realizes he is having a myocardial infarction and will die. Despite the pain and his fear, Dr. Galen continues to throw punches. He only hopes he can remain quiet enough not to awaken Linda. If she realizes what is happening, she might try to save his life.

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