Showing 81 - 90 of 202 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

Something for the Pain

Austin, Paul

Last Updated: Sep-29-2008
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

After several years as a firefighter, Paul Austin decided to return to school and become a doctor.  Both his training as firefighter and a somewhat late start at medical school gave him an unusual perspective on his selected specialty-emergency medicine.  The book chronicles a wide variety of surprises, learning moments, and challenges from his years in the emergency room.  These are interspersed with vignettes about the interrupted home life of an emergency physician rotating into night duty three to four times a month.  The pace is lively and the stories confessional in the best sense-rich with reflection on what he has learned, often at great cost to his resilient wife and three children, one with Down syndrome.  A strong theme in the book is the importance of developing strategies for sustaining humanity and compassion even under intense pressure to be quick, clinical, and detached. 

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Summary:

Body of Work is a cleverly crafted memoir - or, rather, the first chapter of a memoir - of the author's medical school experience at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island. Ms Montross relates the chronological course of her team's dissection of a female cadaver with no discernible umbilicus and whom they therefore name Eve. (She neglects to comment on Eve's ribs and whether she has the normal complement or a supernumerary, more masculine, rib.) As she and her team of four (later three as one student drops out of school) proceed with the orderly dismantling of Eve, bone by bone, nerve by nerve and blood vessel by blood vessel, she uses this experience as a springboard to analyze her and her team's emotional reactions to the often unnatural process of deconstructing, literally (at times with a saw), a former person now cadaver, as well as the gradual, almost imperceptible acculturation that transmogrifies medical students into doctors. In fact, she devotes the final pages to this metamorphosis and what it means to the person undergoing the transition from caring student to detached physician, and whether one can retain enough caring, while remaining sufficiently detached to function as one must as a clinician, to become both a whole person and competent physician: "How much of becoming a doctor demands releasing the well-known and well-loved parts of my self?" (page 209)

Although it primarily revolves about the axis of her gross anatomy (cadaver dissection) course, the author's narrative includes tangents that have variably relevant relationships to this course, e.g., a trip to Italy to inspect first hand the anatomy theater of Vesalius in Padua and the Basilica of St. Anthony; another trip to the anatomical wax sculptures museum in Bologna, where the author also observes the "incorrupt corpse of Santa Caterina" in a "small church called Corpus Domini" (pages 223-224); interspersed histories of the traffic of corpses for dissection, including the infamous Burke and Hare story; some flash-forwards to her second and third years; and a prolonged narration of the final illnesses of her grandmother and grandfather. This last bit of family history is worth the price of the book alone. Despite the apparently incongruous collection of such asides, the author makes it work smoothly, if not seamlessly.

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A Step From Death

Woiwode, Larry

Last Updated: Apr-25-2008
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In A Step from Death a profusion of memories radiate from a near-fatal accident on Larry Woiwoide's farm in western North Dakota. Woiwode, a novelist and poet of America's heartland, had just finished baling hay when his denim jacket got caught in the tractor's power take-off, "a geared stub at the rear of the tractor that spins at 500 rpm." (p. 9) Caught in the powerful machine with no one around to hear his cries for help, Woiwode could easily have died, but survived by using his pocket knife to free himself from the jacket.

In a sense A Step from Death takes up where the author's previous memoir, What I Think I Did, leaves off. The earlier book focuses on surviving North Dakota's outrageously bitter winter of 1996-97. The current memoir ranges far and wide over nearly 40 years of Woiwode's life as a writer who chooses a difficult but fulfilling life for himself and his family on the land. The memoir is addressed to Woiwode's only son Joseph (the second of four children), with whom he shares his fatherly failures, as well as the strengths of their relationship. The reader soon learns that accidents were no strangers to their life on the northern plains. Woiwode and his wife and older daughter had survived a serious car accident on an icy road in one of their early Dakota winters. Joseph, too, sustained severe injuries as a child when he fell off a horse and again later in a tractor accident. On another occasion, Joseph and his sisters are responsible for accidentally causing a fire that burned down the family barn.

Now, however, Joseph is a married man, a helicopter pilot, with two children of his own. The recollections and wisdom that his father shares with him (and us) flow freely, creating a free associational, rather than linear, narrative. Woiwode explores the deep network of connections that bind him to the land and his family, as well as to the community of creative writers and especially William Maxwell, his long-time editor at The New Yorker, mentor, and father figure. Woiwode explores as well the strong pull of loss in his life-his parents' deaths and eventually that of Maxwell-but A Step from Death is ultimately a celebration of survival.

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The Glass Castle

Walls, Jeannette

Last Updated: Apr-14-2008
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The Glass Castle, a gripping memoir about growing up devastatingly poor in America, opens with this first line: "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster." (p. 3) Jeanette Walls slinks down in the taxi's back seat and returns to her Park Avenue apartment. A few days later, she manages to contact her homeless mother and take her out for dinner, offering her help, yet again. But her mother refuses, and when asked what Jeannette is supposed to say about her parents, her mother replies "Just tell the truth...[t]hat's simple enough." (p.5) And with these words, Walls launches into the history of her upbringing, with all the deprivations, suffering, joys, shame, exasperations, tribulations and sorrows - the story of the Rex and Rose Mary Walls' family.

Rex Walls is an alcoholic and dreamer, his wife an artist and egoist; both are psychotically blind to the basic needs of their four children. Yet the parents do feed the children with love and intellectual stimulation, managing to keep the family unit intact while the children figure out how to survive. The reader first meets the child Jeannette at age three when she is on fire, cooking hot dogs on the stove in a trailer park, completely unsupervised. She requires multiple skin grafts but enjoys the regularity of hospital food, until six weeks later her father abducts her from the hospital in the first of a series of "skedaddles" that the reader learns is the way Rex Walls stays ahead of bill collectors and other authorities.

At each miserable turn, the reader wonders if things can get any worse. They do. The family winds up living in a rotting hut without plumbing in the coal mining town of Welch, West Virginia. Rex steals money from his children, Rose Mary buys herself art books instead of food for the family. The kids eat garbage they secretly remove from trash bins at school.

But finally, one by one, the kids do escape, although, like everyone, they carry the past within them. To varying degrees, each is scarred. Nonetheless, Jeannette works her way through Barnard in New York City and becomes a contributor to MSNBC. Ultimately the book is a tribute to the gutsy resilience of some remarkable individuals.

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Silvie's Life

Rogoff, Marianne

Last Updated: Apr-01-2008
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This book chronicles a tortured parenthood during the birth and brief life of a severely brain-damaged female infant, Silvie. Doctors predict that the child will live only a few days but instead she survives for seven months. The story is told in first person by the mother, beginning with her arduous labor during a home delivery in the presence of an experienced midwife and the family physician. The baby does not cry when she is born and turns blue even with oxygen that the doctor administers. An ambulance is summoned; "a bigger, better oxygen machine" restores the baby's color and she is brought to a hospital neonatal intensive care unit where she is artificially ventilated and fed.

In the hospital Silvie "fails" all the tests of normalcy. The doctors recommend removing artificial ventilation. "I feared, even more than I feared her death I think (and harder to admit), that they would remove the oxygen pump and the baby would live on and on and never be able to do anything at all" (14). Yet when the child does in fact breathe independently, "I took the fact that she could sustain her own breathing to mean that the baby wanted to live. It was all right to love her" (15). A few days later, however, the medical team concludes that there is nothing further they can do for the baby, that the parents should take the child home, where she will likely die within a couple of days. Upon being prodded, one physician suggests the parents give her an overdose of phenobarbital, which she is receiving for continual epileptic seizures.

At home, the parents feed Silvie by tube, medicate her, change her diapers, hold her, and learn from a friend how to swaddle her. The child never cries, does not focus her eyes on anything, rarely responds to sound or touch, and gains no weight. Whatever random responsiveness there seems to be gives the author a sense of motherhood: "I was able to survive because of my faith in these intermittent chance meetings, believing that Silvie did know when I was here and that I was holding her close in a way that meant love" (37). The parents brace themselves for Silvie's death. The husband's sister visits and councils them to actively put an end to Silvie's life, which they refuse to do. But they do not plan to take extra measures (CPR) if Silvie seems to be dying at home and when they articulate this to a social worker whom they consult to obtain respite care, it becomes clear that she would report them to Child Protective Services.

The husband quits his job as a residential counselor of emotionally disturbed teenagers to do part-time carpentry work -- he is too preoccupied to care about other people's problems. When a friend accidentally breaks the phenobarbital bottle, the parents together with the family physician decide to see how Silvie will get along without the drug. To their amazement, the baby appears slightly more alert and is able to suck from a bottle -- no more feeding tube required. But the husband reminds his wife, "The doctors warned us she might do this. This is the one and only thing she can ever learn. They said when this happened to other parents they started to believe that the baby was getting better" (59).

The parents live in limbo, attempt to live a "normal" life. When Silvie starts to lose weight at age 4 months, the doctor advises to resume tube feeding; they don't see the point, but when hospital physicians use the word, "murder," and threaten to "take over" Silvie's care, the parents relent. The baby lives but "it was the sameness of Silvie that drove you crazy . . . She slept and woke, but was awake that much different? She did not change, she did not change. Her sameness was a stone I wore, an emblem of failure, failed life" (96).

The final act for Silvie begins when the author's mother-in-law is dying of cancer in New York and a decision is made to leave the baby at home in California for several days in the care of a retired nurse. The nurse has been shown how to do the tube feeding, but while the parents are in New York she experiments with spoon feeding, then discontinues tube feeding for three days before the parents return. The parents see that Silvie has deteriorated in their absence and resume tube feeding. For the remaining couple of months the parents wait, investigate institutionalizing Silvie, and finally determine that "the way we loved Silvie meant we loved her enough to let her die" at home, with "a certain amount of fluid and nourishment for comfort, but a gradual withdrawal of excessive food. Replaced with a lot of touching and holding, stroking and whispering" (122). Silvie dies and the author is four months pregnant with the baby she and her husband have decided not to abort.

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A woman is pregnant. She is a nurse married to a physician, Jeff, and they have a young son, Willie. The couple is pregnant with their second child. Long before her due date, the woman--author Susan LaScala--begins experiencing signs of premature labor. Because she is a nurse, because she is married to a doctor who takes call, she doesn't want to over-react or bother her obstetrician unnecessarily. But when vague aches turn into cramps, the author enters, as a patient, the world she had known, until then, only as a caregiver.

It is impossible, in a brief annotation, to describe fully the richness of this memoir. Because the author is a nurse, she brings to the story of the premature birth and survival of her daughter, Sarah, a wonderful double vision: LaScala tells this tale not only as a mother and a patient but also as a clinician able to explain, in simple language, the complex technologies used to sustain the life of her one pound nine ounce baby. The author's rendering of the bells and whistles of neonatal medicine, whether describing the process of intubating a preemie (p. 23) or ultrasounding a baby determined to survive (p. 182-3) are precise and haunting.

Equally compelling (and instructive for caregivers) are the author's candid revelations of how it feels to be a patient. She takes to "grading" the doctors and nurses--an "A" for the staff that lets her see her newborn girl (p. 3), and a "C" for a nurse with "No kind words. No warmth" (p.11). She describes her own bodily sensations in language both lovely and informing: the pushing and tugging she feels during her C-Section is a "quiet violence" (p.21); standing beside her daughter during the ventilator weaning process she feels "a witch's brew of fear and panic mixing and growing inside" (p. 225).

In an introduction, physician Barbara Wolk Stechenberg, describes the "gift" that the author has given by writing this memoir. The author has allowed Dr. Stechenberg, who was part of the team that saved Sarah, "a rare glimpse into two worlds" (p. xii). One was the world of intensive care nurses and how "they truly are the primary caregivers" (p. xii). The other world was that of physicians, who "may feel we are empathic and caring, but we really have no idea of the emotional roller coaster many of our parents are riding" (p. xii).

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Sandeep Jauhar, M.D., Ph.D. is currently director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York. Thus, one can assume that he is an accomplished cardiologist and administrator. It was not always so. This memoir flashes back to 10-15 years earlier when the author was casting about for a career, finally settling on medicine almost by default; it follows him to medical school (at Washington University in St. Louis) and then centers on his first year of residency training at Cornell's New York Hospital in Manhattan -- the internship year.

We learn in the introduction to the book that the author will speak freely of self-doubt about career choice, constant anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, exhaustion, and disillusionment. Which indeed he does. But Jauhar first discusses his family background: born in India and emigrating with his family to the USA at age 8; father holding a Ph.D. in plant genetics, now writing academic textbooks and still regretting that he had not been able to afford his dream of becoming a doctor; mother helping to support the family as a lab technician; older brother, Rajiv, a mentor and competitor, charming, self-assured, and unquestioningly headed for a medical career; sister, Suneeta. Sandeep (the author) undertakes graduate work in theoretical physics but as he nears completion of his doctoral degree, realizes that he probably does not have what it takes to be successful in the field. When his girlfriend, Lisa, becomes seriously ill, he begins to (re)consider medicine as a career. Against the advice of his parents who are now convinced he is a dilettante, he applies to medical school and is accepted.

Disillusionment began during the first two years of medical school: "In graduate school I had never learned to memorize . . . But now I couldn't rely on logic and reasoning; I had to commit huge swaths of material to memory" (32). He considered quitting to become a journalist, a profession that had always intrigued him, but which had been discouraged: "my father made it clear that journalism and writing were never to be considered career options because they offered no security" (33). Yet, amazingly, he was awarded a summer fellowship just before starting medical school that placed him in the Washington, DC office of Time magazine; the contacts he made then allowed him to work as a student reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during medical school and led ultimately to his ongoing and current position as a contributing medical essayist for the New York Times.

Internship for Jauhar unfolds as a series of anxiety-provoking encounters with patients and humiliating encounters with his physician superiors. Feeling inept and inadequate, he stumbles along and worries that he is harming patients. There is too much to keep track of, too many "little things that I find burdensome" (91). "Having so much to do was bad enough, but not knowing why you were doing what you were doing was terrifying . . . Patients were needy, their demands overwhelming . . . Everyone seemed to know how the place worked except me . . . The ecology on the wards was hostile; interactions were hard-bitten, fast paced" (112-113). He is in constant doubt and conflict about his career choice. Even his private life is affected -- his girlfriend Sonia, still a medical student, comes from a medical family, is strongly motivated and secure in her career choice, which aggravates his own sense of insecurity. (Reader, he married her.)

Midway through internship Jauhar suffers a herniated disk. He tries to tough it out without taking time off but his stint as "night float" at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital, which specializes in treating cancer patients, proves too difficult-- up all night trying to tend to the severely ill and "taking care of patients about whom you knew next to nothing" (154). He takes a brief leave followed by a reduced schedule. He recognizes that his problems are emotional as well as physical -- he is depressed. But gradually, as his neck problem improves, as he recognizes that medical professionals are actually able to help patients feel better -- his neurologist and physical therapist had "provided hope and comfort to me at a vulnerable time" (181)--, as he makes a house call to a dying patient, as his essays are published in the New York Times, and as the season moves to Spring, his depression lifts and he looks forward to his work.

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The author's mission is to investigate, understand, explain, describe, and puzzle over the nature of phobias -- his own, and that of other sufferers. Allen Shawn is a composer, pianist, and teacher, and is a member of a gifted family: his brother, Wallace Shawn, is a playwright and actor; his father was William Shawn, for many years editor of the New Yorker Magazine. As a musician and academic, Allen Shawn is "successful." And yet, his life is severely limited by agoraphobia, "a restriction of activities brought about by a fear of having panic symptoms in situations in which one is far from help or escape is perceived to be difficult" (13). The author interweaves sections that summarize his extensive readings on the fight-flight reaction, evolution, brain and mind, Freud's theories on phobia--with his personal history, especially as he believes it relates to his phobia.

Shawn's descriptions of how he experiences agoraphobia are vivid and informative, detailing the situations that trigger his physiologic symptoms of panic and disconnectedness: driving on unfamiliar roads, any kind of travel that is unfamiliar, walking across or on the edge of open spaces, traveling across long bridges, being in enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). The agoraphobe, he writes, "feels at risk, as if at risk of sudden death or madness" (14). Shawn tells about what he must do in order to strike out on unfamiliar trips, that is, when he gathers up the courage to take them. He must venture up to the point where panic sets in, turn back, then on another occasion repeat the process but attempt to go further, pushing through the panic, until, one day, he can make the entire journey without turning back. Sometimes he never makes it to the desired goal.

The author points to several different factors that seem to predispose people to phobias: heredity, unconscious imitation of a phobic parent, upbringing. In his own case, in retrospect, his father showed symptoms of agoraphobia. Shawn discusses the underlying repression that was pervasive in his household -- his father carried on a long-term relationship with a woman while remaining married. Shawn's mother knew about the relationship from early on but any discussion of it was forbidden, even after it became common knowledge.

Perhaps more important in Allen Shawn's perception of repression is what happened to his twin sister, Mary, who was born with what is now considered to be autism, and mental retardation. Allen felt close to this girl, even though her behavior was unpredictable and baffling. When he was about eight years old, his parents sent her away to a special boarding school without warning Allen, or offering explanations. From then on he rarely saw her; 10 years later she was institutionalized. The family did not speak much about her and her "'exile' . . . added yet another layer of mystification to an already really mystifying atmosphere. It turned out that even in our temperate environment something extremely violent could occur" (177). Not long after that, Allen began to experience severe anxiety in certain situations.

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Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

John Grogan's best selling memoir of his and his family's life with an exuberant, loving Labrador retriever pup that grew into an overly boisterous ninety-seven pound member of the family chronicles the joys and tribulations of dog ownership. Particularly, of Marley ownership. Marley flunked obedience school, required tranquilizers to tolerate thunder storms, destroyed possessions and jumped on people, to name a few traits.

The young married couple adopted Marley before they had children. The reader learns of the pregnancies and births of the Grogan's three children, including a miscarriage, ‘performance failure' during sex timed to ovulation, and an episode of post-partum depression, with an eye to what Marley was up to during that phase of family life, and especially how he responded to his owners' emotional states. Marley's protective stance towards not only the children, but also to a knifing victim in the neighborhood and to Grogan himself when he was struck by lightning, proved the dog's loyalty and devotion.

Marley lived a full life; as he aged, his hearing, sight and mobility worsened. He required emergency abdominal surgery at an old age, recuperated, but then suffered the same stomach bloat and twist problem again.

Grogan, a newspaper columnist, decided, after a period of intense grief, to write an article about Marley. "‘No one ever called him a great dog - or even a good dog. He was as wild as a banshee and as strong as a bull. He crashed joyously through life with a gusto most often associated with natural disasters...' There was more to him than that, however... ‘He taught me to appreciate the simple things...And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty.'" (p. 279)

The column generated an avalanche of responses; fellow owners of bad yet lovable dogs wrote to the newspaper of their own experiences. These responses were cathartic to Grogan as he and his family learned to live without Marley, the dog who had taught them all so much: "the art of unqualified love." (p. 287)

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Summary:

In this compelling memoir, Grace, a writer, artist and teacher, unexpectedly finds herself attracted to a carpenter, Howard Staab, whom she meets when looking at a new home. Shortly after their relationship begins, Staab is told in a routine physical examination that he has severe mitral valve regurgitation and will require surgery. Staab, an active, otherwise healthy fifty-three year-old man, has no health insurance. The cardiac surgery will cost over $200,000. Thus Staab and Grace embark on a quest to find an affordable, but excellent surgeon and hospital. Grace details her efforts to find the best care possible, including correspondence with her son, Bryan, a Stanford medical student with interests in international health. These inquiries lead to the possibility of surgery in India.

After a useful, explanatory preface the book begins when Staab and Grace land in New Delhi and enter the Escorts Heart Institute. Staab undergoes a series of tests confirming the need for surgery, which is subsequently performed by Dr. Naresh Trehan. Through Grace's eyes, we also meet nurses, aides, other physicians, administrators and friends. The narrative follows the hospitalization, including dramatic complications and eventual recovery, and also backtracks to better detail the search for care and the predicament of un- and underinsured Americans. Grace also describes the post-hospital phase, including venturing out beyond hospital and hotel walls.

The book, highlighting the fact that Grace and Staab face more than one cultural challenge in this journey, contains both a medical terms glossary and a short list of Hindi terms. Ultimately, Grace concludes she would consider returning to Escorts or a similar hospital should she or a loved-one require surgery, even without the insurance issue. She states: "India, the land of contradictions. Organized chaos. A third-world country with first-world state-of-the-art medical care available for a fraction of the cost of the same procedures here in the U.S." (p. 259)

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