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The Way of the Physician

Needleman, Jacob

Last Updated: Dec-02-2013
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Jacob Needleman, a philosopher concerned with "applying philosophy to the questions of everyday life," taught medical ethics at San Francisco State University (SFSU). In this highly personal book he addresses what it means to be a "good doctor" and the role of physicians in contemporary society. The book is structured as a series of imaginary letters addressed to his childhood idol, the physician who treated him when he was 12 years old.

The aged Dr. Kaufman responds to these letters, although we see only the philosopher’s side of the correspondence. Toward the end of the book, Needleman makes a pilgrimage to Philadelphia to visit his ailing mentor. They talk for a while, then when the old man takes a nap, Needleman spends the rest of the day conversing with Dr. Kaufman’s daughter, a pediatrician who in some sense represents the "good" medicine of the future, just as her father represented the "good" medicine of the past.

In these letters the author addresses the deep questions of character and motivation in the form of a personal narrative. He recalls his experiences as a boy, his ambition to become a doctor, and several incidents from his life as an autopsy assistant and hospital orderly. For example, there is the bizarre story of the young man transporting an amputated leg by elevator; he accidentally drops the leg to the floor and the wrappings flip open, much to the astonishment of others on the elevator.

"People don’t trust science; people trust people." (p. 15) Similarly, Jacob Needleman writes, people don’t trust or distrust medicine as an institution; they trust or distrust doctors. "To be a good doctor, one must first of all be a good (person). And to be a good (person) one has to begin by discovering in oneself the desire for truth . . . truth is the only effective force." (p. 68)

To facilitate this quest for truth, Needleman describes in these letters a four-seminar sequence he teaches at SFSU: "To whom is the physician responsible?," "The art of living and the art of medicine," "Care," and "The financial disease of modern medicine." (pp. 71-72) Through these seminars the author hopes to re-awaken in prospective physicians the quest for truth, and the possibility of care, that he believes have been submerged by technology and infected by the financial disease. Dr. Kaufman’s daughter serves as a real-life example of the possibility of cultivating the contemporary version of the "good doctor."

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

This essay concerns a very unusual man, Washington Woodward, whom Donald Hall met as a young boy during his summers in New Hampshire and came to know even more from the tales he heard from his grandfather. Abandoned at age 6, Washington grew up on the author’s grandparents’ farm until age 12 when his “lazy and mean” father reclaimed him. Running away 4 years later, Washington began the highly eccentric life limned in this poetic mini-biography.

“Eccentric” probably does not do justice to Washington’s style, habits, skills, and foibles. He was entirely self-sufficient, from his clothes to his food - much of which he hunted or grew - to his handmade machines, including a complicated boulder-moving contraption designed to clear the way for cows, not humans. Washington could repair almost anything, from an outhouse to a baseball bat to a mowing machine.

The range of his skills is impressive by anyone’s standards, not just a 21st century reader: “I knew him to shoe a horse, install plumbing, dig a well, make a gun, build a road, lay a dry stone wall, do the foundation and frame of a house, invent a new kind of trap for beavers, manufacture his own shotgun shells, grind knives, and turn a baseball bat on a lathe” (page 23), reminding this reader of a similar passage about Nate Shaw in Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers. Living the life of a hermit most of the time on Ragged Mountain, New Hampshire, Washington spent a great deal of his life with his beloved animals: Phoebe the pet Holstein and Old Duke the ox, whom he taught to shake hands and roll over.

The nails? Washington would gather stray nails he found in boards or discovered on walks, and take them back to his hut where he would straighten them and store them. Why? “He saved the nails because it was a sin to allow good material to go to waste.” (page 26)

He died in a state nursing home, a month after a visit by the author and his grandfather.


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Epileptic

B., David

Last Updated: Nov-10-2013
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

First published in France as a six-volume series from 1996-2003, this narrative is often referred to as an autobiographical graphic novel, but it is more accurately described as a graphic memoir. The author, born Pierre-François Beauchard, tells and draws the story of his family's life with the author's older brother, Jean-Christophe, whom we meet on the first page, in the year 1994: "It takes a moment for me to recognize the guy who just walked in. It's my brother . . . The back of his head is bald, from all the times he's fallen. He's enormously bloated from medication and lack of exercise." Flashback to 1964 when the author is five years old and his seven-year-old brother begins to have frequent grand mal epilepsy seizures. There follows the parents' mostly fruitless search for treatment to control the seizures, including: possible brain surgery which Jean-Christophe refuses in favor of an attempt at zen macrobiotics (this seems to work for six-months), consultation with a psychic, Swedenborgian spiritualism, magnetism, alchemy, exorcism by a priest, psychiatry (a different form of exorcism!).

Jean-Christophe's illness transforms family life as other children mock and fear the boy, the family moves to an isolated area, joins communes, and attempts to cope with Jean-Christophe's increasingly disturbed and disturbing behavior that alternates between passivity and physical aggression. The author has vivid visions and dreams and changes his name to David ("a symbolic act. I've won the war [against the threat of acquiring epilepsy" (164)]; his sister Florence suffers from constant anxiety; his mother grieves for many months after her father dies. As an adolescent and young man Jean-Christophe spends time in several institutions for handicapped individuals as well as at home, where he lives a desultory existence that is interspersed with violence toward the author and his father.

David escapes to Paris, living in a studio apartment paid for by his father, reading, writing stories, drawing, and attending classes at the Duperre School of Applied Arts. "I had to draw and write constantly. I had to fill my time in order to prevent my brother's disease from reaching me" (276). He is lonely but avoids people, feels guilty for neglecting his brother and ‘picking on' him yet is fearful that he too will be taken over by epilepsy, or death. Equally upsetting is when David discovers writings by Jean-Christophe: "He speaks of his despair and loneliness and the words might as well have come from my pen" (316). On and off, in moving displays of empathy, the author attempts to understand what happens to his brother during the seizures -- is he conscious, where does he go, does he die temporarily?

Within the narrative are intercalated multigenerational family histories that include two world wars, and European philosophical and cultural movements that influenced his parents and their search for treatments. The final section of Epileptic relates in words and images the author's adult life as he becomes a commercial artist; struggles through several relationships with women; his own infertility; his ever-present confusion, anger, and misery about his brother's illness; and his founding with five colleagues of the independent publishing house, L'Association: "It's the creation of L'Association that saves me" (327).

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A Diary Without Dates

Bagnold, Enid

Last Updated: Oct-24-2013
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

"A Diary Without Dates" is Enid Bagnold's World War I memoir of her experiences over roughly a year and a half as a member of the V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment), or what we would today call a nurse's aide. Assisting the Sisters (both lay and religious nurses), the author attended to the day-to-day (mostly non-clinical) needs of wounded soldiers (almost entirely British) recovering from often horrific wounds in the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich, 8 miles southeast of London. These poor men often stayed in the Royal Herbert for many months. It is a slim volume which the author wrote at the age of 28 and published in 1918. Divided into three arbitrary divisions ("Outside the Glass Doors", "Inside the Glass Doors", "'The Boys ...'") of roughly equal content (the last devotes, on the whole, more detail to individual "Tommies", referred to as "The Boys"), the book recounts the author's observations and fairly critical views of the relationships between nurses, physicians, V.A.D's, and visitors. Apparently the book was not well received by war authorities, leading to Bagnold's dismissal from her position.

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Each chapter in this book explores the forms and effects of humor in healthcare, mostly in hospital settings, beginning with a touching account of a person who worked as a hospital clown, visiting patients, enlivening staff, haunting the halls of a hospital where she became a beloved and important reminder that the disruptions of illness can be reframed in ways that make them more tolerable and bring patients back into communities from which they often feel exiled.  In subsequent chapters Carter, who himself went through cancer treatment, and writes from that experience as well as from his experience as a volunteer in an ER, draws from his compendious collection of medical jokes and stories to provide examples of the kinds of humor that help nurses and doctors, as well as patients and their families, get through the days.  Some of it is edgy and ironic, some broad and slapstick, some wordplay that helps to domesticate the often alienating discourse of clinical medicine.  His point is to provide some analytical categories and ways of understanding the kinds of humor that can be helpful-not simply to share a collection of jokes and stories, but the book does, especially in the final chapters, provide a sizeable collection of those, ranging from puns (including what he calls "groaners") to patient stories that in various ways turn medicine on its head.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

The pediatrician-author of this autobiography was the first Jewish professor of medicine at the prestigious McGill University.

Born in Montreal in 1890, Alton was an only child whose immigrant father was an itinerant merchant with somewhat shady dealings. The shy boy developed hemoptysis and was sent away from home and family to the healthier air of Denver on the erroneous suspicion of tuberculosis.

He overcame shyness and found an ability to speak in acting and “declaiming” passages from Shakespeare. Literature remained a lifelong passion. Notwithstanding the quotas on Jewish students, he attended McGill medical school, followed by residency in the United States where he encountered many luminaries of twentieth-century pediatrics.  

Upon his return to Montreal, he confronted entrenched anti-semitism, but was instrumental in founding the Jewish General Hospital and a children’s hospital. He witnessed exciting medical discoveries and, like many other pediatricians, championed initiatives for child health that relied on social intervention.

The book closes with a few case histories of small patients, many of whom fell ill because of parental and societal ignorance.

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Annotated by:
Willms, Janice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Essays)

Summary:

The writer opens the volume by discussing the ways in which the poetry created by the affected person differs from the narrative form of describing the experience of illness—the classic “pathography.”  The essays in the collection demonstrate, by using examples, some of the unique qualities of the poem as an alternative to a prose narrative progression as well as the ambiguities introduced by the language of poetry. The discussions of the poetry presented provide the reader with guidance to the acceptance of poems in their “own terms” in order to understand the poet’s internal sense of the meaning of illness.  By allowing new and different information to become available for consideration the careful reader may gain new insights into the lives of those who are ill or disabled.

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Summary:

The great French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) conducted an affair with her doctor, gynecologist Samuel Pozzi (1846-1918) in the decade before he married. They remained friends, and she always called him her Docteur Dieu (doctor god).

The handsome physician was a leading light in French gynecology and in the Paris arts community. Clad in his red dressing gown, Pozzi was the subject of John Singer Sargent's wonderful portrait (1881), which spawned erotic legends about him.

At first happy, Pozzi’s marriage degenerated into coldness, but his wife would not grant him a divorce. He then established a long-standing, public relationship with Emma Fischhof. During the Dreyfus affair, which unmasked the horror of entrenched anti-Semitism in France, physician and actress both fought against the ill treatment of the Jewish officer.

In 1915 and at Sarah’s insistence, Pozzi amputated her painful leg. Three years later, he was shot and killed by a disgruntled and delusional patient who blamed him for a minor illness.

 

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

The author was the first blind physician to be licensed in Canada. Her autobiography is also an autopathography.

From her anger over developing severe diabetes as a teenager, through her relentless pursuit of a scientific degree and medical school, through a brief failed marriage – followed by the tragedy of completely losing her sight while still in training, to a rewarding and responsible career as a palliative care physician and educator.

Sustained by her religious faith and by loyal family members and friends, Poulson explains choices, compromises and supports that allowed her to continue studying and working in Montreal and later in Toronto.

Her complications from diabetes were numerous, and included heart disease for which she required surgery. Then she developed breast cancer, which eventually metastasized. In closing her narrative, she knows it will likely take her life.

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The Soul of the Nurse

Robinson, Elizabeth

Last Updated: May-23-2013
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

In her reflections on the vocation of nursing Robinson explores many myths and archetypes that give shape and energy to the identity of the nurse as it has evolved in Western culture, including the stories of Hygeia, Baubo, Hermes, Hecate, Cassandra, and the Dionysian Maenad.  The ancient stories of each of these figures and others articulate particular constraints, conventions, and conflicts involved in caregiving, especially in the ways women assume the role of caregiver.  She explains at the outset that she deals particularly with women in nursing, though now many men are nurses, since traditionally it has been a profession deeply shaped by cultural notions of female roles.  Another layer of this exploration is a chapter on the nurse in popular culture that considers ways in which the figure of the nurse has been both elevated and debased, made comic or tragic, sidelined or sexualized.  The multidimensionality of the nursing vocation and, consequently, the challenge it poses to women who enter it, is strongly emphasized throughout the six chapters, which together depict the work of nursing as a soul journey. This journey challenges nurses in new ways to work within institutions that suppress important aspects of their power to do healing work at a level of intimacy generally not accessed by doctors.

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