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By the author's own admission, this memoir is a collection of fragments taken from her memory of bits and pieces of her four year experience as a nurse in an evacuation hospital unit following the front lines up and down the European theatre during World War I. The work is fragmented because this experience was fragmented.
The first few chapters are dream-like descriptions of the men marching into battle and crawling back, or being carried back. The second collection of short vignettes dips--just a wee bit--into some of the individual soldiers' immediate stories. The latter segment of the book deals in more detail with the operations of the field hospital, some of its personnel, and some of the patients. Finally, the author treats the reader to a handful of poems, perhaps unnecessary, since the entire memoir is like one giant poem.
Gabriel Noone, a late-night radio personality ("Noone at Night" on PBS) who reads his semi-autobiographical stories to millions of Americans, has just separated from his lover Jess when a publisher sends him the proofs of a memoir written by a 13-year-old boy with AIDS. Peter, the young author, has suffered heinous sexual abuse from his parents and hoards of strangers; he lives with his adoptive mother Donna, who was his therapist. Gabriel, shaken by the memoir, calls Peter, a conversation (all via phone, almost all at night) that begins a relationship that quickly becomes an intense, father-son-like relationship that grows deeper as it grows more unsettling as Jess and others begin to cast suspicion on the actual existence of Peter.
Second Opinions, Jerome Groopman's second collection of clinical stories, illuminates the mysteries, fears, and uncertainties that serious illness evokes in both patients and doctors. The book is divided into 8 chapters, each a clinical story involving a patient with a life-threatening illness, plus a prologue and epilogue written by Groopman. The stories focus on people who face myelofibrosis, acute leukemia, hairy cell leukemia, breast cancer, and marrow failure of unknown cause. Two chapters are Groopman's personal accounts of his firstborn son's near fatal misdiagnosis, and of his grandfather's Alzheimer's dementia.
Mr. Lucas, an Englishman, is growing old. He has always wanted to visit Greece and has finally achieved this, accompanied by his unmarried daughter, Ethel, who will, it has been assumed, dedicate her life to taking care of him in his old age. In Greece, Mr. Lucas becomes restless and resistant to the idea of an expected passive, peaceful death from old age. He wants to "die fighting." Something mysterious happens: he finds a great old hollow tree from which a spring of water flows. He climbs into the tree and experiences an epiphany: he suddenly sees all things as "intelligible and good."
But when the rest of his party find him, he is oddly repelled by them. He does not feel that anyone can share the revelation he has experienced, and he becomes afraid that if he leaves the place he will lose the feeling himself. He decides not to leave, and says he plans to stay at an inn near the old tree, but the others are horrified, and force him to leave with them.
Back in England, some time later, Ethel is now about to be married. Mr. Lucas has become a perpetually disgruntled old man, complaining about everything (especially the sound of water in the plumbing--the mystical Greek spring has been reduced to this annoyance--he says, "there’s nothing I dislike more than running water"). His sister, Julia, whom he hates, is going to take care of him once Ethel is married.
Then a gift arrives from a friend in Greece, wrapped in a Greek newspaper. In it Ethel reads the news that on the night they left, the old tree was blown down, and fell on the family who kept the inn nearby, killing them all. Ethel is upset, and says how lucky it was that they hadn’t stayed there that night, calling it a "marvellous deliverance," but Mr. Lucas dismisses the story without interest. He no longer cares.
Marina, a fourteen-year-old recently transferred from a mental hospital to a boarding school, can't speak. Her muteness is a reaction to trauma; in a moment of fury at her mother, her father threw photographic acid in the car window and, instead of hitting his wife, hit his daughter's face. Severely scarred, both inside and outside, resentful of her mother and bewildered by her father's pain, anger, and now imprisonment for assault, she records her daily life tentatively in a journal assigned, but not read by, a favorite English teacher at her new school.
The girls in her dorm have been apprised of her problem and treat her mostly with respect, but only one of them is fully able to keep making the moves that open a door to friendship. Despite Marina's silence, even in sessions with the school counselor, she begins to heal as she makes her journal (the text of the story) a safe place, allows herself to be included in the family lives of her teacher and friend, and finally summons the courage to visit her father, with whom she retrieves the language she needs, finding, as the title suggests, she has "so much to tell him."
Some interesting and very odd characters (including a few scientists and researchers) inhabit the eleven short stories in this collection. In "Concerning Mold Upon the Skin, Etc.," Anton van Leeuwenhoek creates his first microscope and becomes so absorbed by the invisible worlds revealed to him that he neglects his own family. "Nowhere" is the tale of an old anatomy professor who aspires to spice up the curriculum by obtaining a corpse for his students to study. "Tumbling" recounts the difficult life of a young woman understandably haunted by the possibility that she may inherit Huntington’s chorea from her father and her inspired liberation of over one thousand laboratory mice.
In "Chloroform Jags," a professional midwife self-experiments with chloroform "not to escape time but to dissolve time." Other stories describe the execution of an elephant; the murder of a physician who happens to be an important figure in the French Revolution; a woman with a talent for insomnia who has not slept for six months; a psychoanalyst and his patient; an eighteenth century blind beekeeper; and Dorothea Dix, an early advocate for the humane treatment of the mentally ill.
By most accounts Dr. Sam Abelman is a failure in life, an irascible old general practitioner who lives in the same grimy Brooklyn neighborhood he has always lived in. He is truculent and tactless, an easy mark for the young specialists who steal his patients. One night a bunch of hoodlums drop a battered young woman on his doorstep. Abelman's nephew, a reporter, publishes a news item about the incident, "Doctor Saves Raped Girl."
Meanwhile, Woody Thrasher, vice president of an advertising agency, is looking for a new type of television show to sell to one of his clients. He comes up with Americans USA, a candid look at "ordinary" Americans who are just doing their jobs, but in an extraordinary way. He decides that Sam Abelman would be the ideal first subject.
Thrasher, a young, high-powered executive, meets Abelman, the last angry man, who summarizes his view on life by saying, "The bastards just won't let you live." The doctor's practice is declining, he can't afford to retire or move away, and the local people certainly don't seem to love him. They don't show gratitude for his services. They don't pay their bills. Many of them consider him a racist, and incompetent to boot. Abelman is clearly not a good candidate for "doctor of the year."
Yet, Thrasher soon finds himself intrigued. Abelman spends hours working in his miniature vegetable garden and reading Henry David Thoreau. He is a brilliant diagnostician, a devoted husband, and an endless campaigner against the "galoots" who think the world owes them a living. Abelman takes aim at "galoots" wherever he finds them, and he finds them everywhere.
The novel interweaves these two men's developing relationship, as Abelman agrees to do the show and Thrasher works to sell it to his bosses, with incidents from Abelman's earlier life. When it turns out that Americans USA will award its subjects their "heart's desire" (in Sam Abelman's case a new house), the doctor declines to go on, refusing to accept "charity" and claiming that Thrasher "tried to crap me up." In the end he agrees to do the show, but suffers a massive heart attack and dies.
Sam (Hume Cronyn) and Cora Peek (Jessica Tandy) dance to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, surrounded by friends and children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Not long after this party, Cora dies suddenly, and Sam is left alone and depressed. His anxious, protective children try to manage his life, down to what he eats, but Sam wants to be left alone. There is a classic, often comic conflict between the stubborn, independent old father and his worried, controlling children.
To help Sam, his wife returns from the dead as a white dog which he feeds and cares for, but she keeps hiding when the other family members appear, so they think Sam is hallucinating and demented. When Sam has a stroke, however, the white dog runs to a family member's house and barks for help, saving Sam's life. Later, as Sam recovers and walks using a walker, the white dog "dances" with him by putting her front paws on top of the walker. She also saves his life another time when she leads family members to a stream where Sam has fallen. Mostly she is there as his loving companion, leaving only when Sam dies.
Peppered with a plethora of black and white stills, this book is a compilation of a physician's film reviews and reflections on how movies have mirrored the changes in medical care and in society's attitudes towards doctors and medicine over the last sixty years. Ten chapters blend a chronological approach with a thematic perspective: Hollywood Goes to Medical School; The Kindly Savior:
From Doctor Bull to Doc Hollywood; Benevolent Institutions; The Temple of Science; "Where are All the Women Doctors?"; Blacks, the Invisible Doctors; The Dark Side of Doctors; The Institutions Turn Evil; The Temple of Healing; More Good Movie Doctors and Other Personal Favorites.
The appendices (my favorite) briefly note recurring medical themes and stereotypes ("You have two months to live," "Boil the Water!"). Formatted as a filmography, the appendices reference the chapter number in which the film is discussed, the sources of the photographs, and a limited index.
Alan Shapiro, poet and professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, chronicles the life and death of his sister, Beth, who died of breast cancer at the age of 49. Beth lived the last four weeks of her life at a hospice in Texas--this memoir traces those weeks in particular and refracts them against decades of family dynamics, turmoil and triumph. The memoir is composed of 14 tersely named chapters ("The Death," "The Joke") followed by "Afterwords": six poems about Beth.
Alan is the youngest of 3 siblings; Beth was the oldest and David, an actor is the middle child. Despite, or perhaps because of their age difference, Beth and Alan were very close. It was he whom she asked to write her eulogy and it was he who stayed the entire 4 weeks of hospice, save for a brief trip home. From Alan's love and devotion grows an admiration for Beth's integrity in life and death.
Beth married an African-American man, fought for liberal causes, and suffered complete estrangement from her parents due to her choices. Her husband, Russ, must deal not only with the loss of his wife and their daughter's loss of her mother, but also with the prejudice of the Shapiro parents and the medical establishment. At one point Shapiro describes how, whenever he accompanied his sister and her husband to the doctor's office, Alan, not Russ, was treated as the spouse and decision-maker.
Shapiro vividly depicts the poignancy of parent-child relationships. Gabbi, the seven-year-old daughter who loves horses, gallops through the house with grace and abandon not possible at the hospice. Alan's anger at his father's actions and his forgiveness of his mother's accomplice role are also strongly demonstrated. A great strength of this book is the choice of detail: the mother completes a book of crossword puzzles during the vigil; the brother becomes infatuated with a particular joke he wants to memorize; nurses leave a solitary rose on the bed of the newly dead at the hospice.
Shapiro is keenly interested in being with his sister right at the moment of her death. He describes the end: "one long, deep, and profoundly eerie moan . . . That moan, I'm certain, marked the end of Beth, the end of life, though the body went on breathing for another minute or so, each breath a little fainter, weaker, the body's electricity guttering down, dissolving, till there was no breath at all." (pp. 111-2)
He also analyzes whether this was "a good death." There had been many gifts: Beth's recognition of her importance, her reconciliation with her father, and her acceptance of her mother's devotion. However, Shapiro also keeps the reader cognizant of Beth's suffering and the now motherless child, the spouseless husband and the myriad other ways that Beth's death marked a void.