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This collection of 16 short stories focuses on doctors and patients in San Francisco, where a wide variety of wealth and culture impact the delivery of medical care. Further, there are many restrictions—financial, bureaucratic, ethical, and legal —that limit what doctors can do, especially in cases of patients near death.
The author, Louise Aronson, is a geriatrician who knows this terrain very well, having trained in San Francisco and worked as a physician there. A skilled writer and close observer, she has created dramatic and often funny stories that reveal social and bioethical complexity. About half the stories describe end-of-life issues for the aged and the dilemmas for their physicians and families.
In ‘The Promise,” Dr. Westphall orders comfort care only for an elderly patient who has suffered a massive stroke, but a hospital gives full treatment because there was no advance directive and the daughter told the attending to do “what he thought best.”
When Dr. Westphall sees this barely functioning patient in a skilled nursing facility seven months later, he tenderly washes her face and hair—although the text teases us that he might have been prepared to kill her.
In “Giving Good Death,” a doctor is in jail charged with murder; he has fulfilled the request of Consuela, a Parkinson’s patient, to help her die. When it appears that she may have died for other reasons, he is released, his life “ruined.” He leaves San Francisco, and, we surmise, medicine. In three other stories, doctors also leave the profession: the cumulative stresses of work and family and/or a sense that it’s not the right path bring them to that choice.
On the other hand, one of the longer pieces “Becoming a Doctor” celebrates the profession, despite all the rigors of training including sexism against women.
The stories bring multicultural insights; we read of people from China, Cambodia, Latin America, India, Russia, and the Philippines. Some are African-American; some Jewish, some gay. These different backgrounds color notions of health, death, and medical care. There are also pervasive issues of poverty and, at another extreme, professionalism that is hyper-rational and heartless.
Indeed, a recurring theme is care and love for people, no matter their background or current health status. A surgeon realizes (regrettably too late) that the secret of medical care is “caring for the patient—for anyone—just a little. Enough, but not too much” (p. 135).
Elie Wiesel, 82-years-old, has pain that he thinks is in his stomach or esophagus, perhaps caused by his chronic acid reflux. After tests, however, doctors diagnose cardiac illness and insist on immediate surgery. Reluctant to go to the hospital, Wiesel dawdles in his office. When he does go, doctors believe a stent will do the job. Instead, the intervention becomes a quintuple bypass.
This brief memoir—a scant 8,000 words—presents the “open heart” of a gifted writer as he contemplates his open-heart surgery, his past life, and the future. He asks himself basic, even primal questions about life, death, and the nature of God.
Although a man with an extraordinary career—prizes, fame, honorary doctorates, friends in high places, professorships—Wiesel experiences and describes ordinary feelings of anxiety, pain, and doubts about his cardiac emergency and possible death. His stylistic gifts describe frankly and vividly a patient’s fears. As many have observed, patients with a serious disease have two difficulties, the disease itself and their emotional responses to that disease. As Wiesel is wheeled into the OR, he looks back on his wife and son; he wonders whether he will ever see them again.
He writes that his “thoughts jump wildly; I am disoriented.” He recalls a friend undergoing similar surgery; she died on the table. He says he can’t follow the jargon of physicians. The texture of the prose is rhapsodic, jumping from the present to memories, many of them about war, his past surgeries, or important family events. This short book has 26 “chapters,” some just half a page; they are like journal entries.
As he slowly recovers, he feels pain and has visions of hell, including the concept of ultimate judgment. “Evidently, I have prayed poorly…; otherwise why would the Lord, by definition just and merciful, punish me in this way?” (p. 38). Because he has a “condemned body,” he feels he must search his soul. In the longest chapter of the book, he reviews several of his writings.
Wiesel asks some of the questions from his famous novel Night (La nuit, 1958). If there is a God, why is there evil? Auschwitz, he says, is both a human tragedy and “a theological scandal” (p. 67). Nonetheless, he affirms, “Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers” (p. 69).At the end, he still has some pain but feels much gratitude for his continuing active life and for his grandchildren.
This poem is divided into two formally identical halves of eleven lines each. The first part describes a visit to a "dissecting room," a Gross Anatomy laboratory. The female visitor dispassionately observes the four male cadavers, "already half unstrung" by dissection, and the students, "white-smocked boys," who work on them. She observes the fetuses in bottles, "snail-nosed babies," which are given a kind of power and fascination absent from the cadavers. Finally, "he," one of the students, hands her the "cut-out heart" of his cadaver.
This disturbing valentine is indirectly elaborated on in the second half of the poem, which describes Brueghel’s painting The Triumph of Death (1562), a "panorama of smoke and slaughter." The speaker focuses on a pair of lovers who, in the lower right corner of the painting, seem entirely unaware of the horrors around them. Enclosed by their love, they form a "little country," admittedly "foolish" and "delicate," but spared from encroaching death--if not by love itself, then at least by the arresting effect of art’s image, for desolation is "stalled in paint."
Summary:This book describes San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, where Victoria Sweet worked as a doctor for 20 years. In the tradition of the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris (literally “God’s Hotel”), Laguna Honda cares for the sickest and poorest patients, many staying there indefinitely because there is no alternative for them. Sweet learns from her long experience at Laguna Honda that “Slow Medicine” has benefits, that a holistic or unified view of patients works best, and that the reductionism and specialization of modern medicine has limitations and costs. During these years Sweet becomes fascinated by the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen and earns a Ph.D. focusing on medieval medicine. At the same time (and increasingly) various forces—economic, legal, political, bureaucratic—cause many changes at Laguna Honda, mostly contrary to Sweet’s vision of medicine.
Part history, part memoir, part social criticism, the book is informative, entertaining, and important for its discussion of the care of our least-well-off citizens and for its perspectives on modern, Western medicine.
There are three intertwining strands to this engaging book: Sweet’s medical evolution as a physician, the changes in Laguna Honda, and her investigations of Hildegard of Bingen and other spiritual matters.
Sweet joins up with Laguna Honda initially for only two months, but she finds the hospital and her work there so fascinating that she stays for 20 years. As an almshouse, Laguna Honda takes care of indigent patients, most with complicated medical conditions, including mental illness and dependencies on alcohol and/or drugs. Many of these cases come from the County Hospital with continuing (but not carefully reviewed) drug treatments. Every 15 or 20 pages, Sweet describes the dilemmas of a particular patient, and her medical (and personal) attention to that patient. The cases are vivid and instructive.
Clearly Laguna Honda is a major figure on the book; we can even consider it (or “her”) a beloved character and a teacher to the young Dr. Sweet, who learns three principles from her work there: hospitality, community, and charity.
Because Laguna Honda is old-fashioned in many ways, Sweet reads her own X-rays, goes the to lab to see results, and spends large amounts of time with each patient. Laguna Honda has an aviary, a farm with barnyard, and a solarium; such features help to heal the whole person. While respectful of modern medicine, Sweet slowly learns that a careful review of a patient through Slow Medicine is more accurate and more cost-efficient than standard, reductionist, high-tech medicine. She comes to respect approaches from “premodern” medicine, including that of Hippocrates and Hildegard.
The second strand is the evolution of Laguna Honda itself. Sweet describes a variety of pressures: the recommendations of consulting firms, rulings from the Department of Justice, a lawsuit, financial difficulties (including fiscal mismanagement), administrators focused on a narrow concept of efficiency, a utilization review board, forms and more forms, and a pervasive sense that modern (including Evidence Based Medicine) is always good. All these and more create a “relentless pressure squeezing the hospital’s Old Medicine into the New Health Care” (p. 322). Sweet demonstrates that her Slow Medicine can actually save money in the long run. Confident that her way is better, she proposes an “ecomedicine unit” that she would match against the modern, “efficient” units in a two-year experiment. (For more information on her concept of ecomedicine proposal, see http://www.victoriasweet.com/.)
As the hospital is “modernized,” many important features of the old place are gone and many “new and improved” aspects don’t work. Somehow there are no rooms for physicians in the new building while there is plenty of space for administrators and managers. A sophisticated computer system doesn’t work. Sweet doesn’t say “I told you so” directly, but we get the picture.
The third strand is Sweet’s investigations of spirituality and pilgrimage. She is fascinated by Hildegard’s notions of the healing power of nature, the ability of the body to heal itself, and wholeness as an aim for a person and for a community. Sweet attends a Swiss conference on Hildegard. She hikes the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela in four installments and considers notions of pilgrimage. She feels called to pursue her ecomedicine project and to write this book.
By the end of the book, both Sweet and Laguna Honda have changed and are now headed in different directions.
Summary:Entering a school as the first student with a serious disability (cerebral palsy) after starting his education in a "special" school, Christopher Nolan had to develop careful and clever strategies for developing friendships, allowing others their curiosity, and finding ways to use his considerable gifts against the odds of both the disease and the prejudice it bred. One of his strategies is the inventive, cryptic, poetic, Joycean idiom in which he writes his story. He did, in fact, succeed in a school where he was accepted as a kind of experiment, in an area of Ireland not known for its progressive attitudes. In this narrative he moves back and forth between inner life, family life, and life at school, allowing readers to get to know him as a deeply reflective, adventurously social, and courageous human being, living with his debilitating condition with a degree of consciousness that took full account of the losses as well as finding avenues of expression that allowed him, intellectually, at least, full range of motion. The narrative takes us through his school years where he distinguished himself as a poet and also as a human being for whom life with a disability shaped an extraordinary dexterity with language.
Summary:Emily Bauer, mother of two small children, psychotherapist and teacher, social, smart, athletic, and strong-willed, finds, after a curious series of falls and other accidents, that she has ALS, "Lou Gehrig's Disease," a disease that involves slow atrophy of all muscular control, leading to complete paralysis and then death. The disease is relentless, and treatments palliative at best.
Summary:Eric Calhoune is known to his classmates as "Moby" because of the extra weight he has carried since grade school. Though his mother is young and athletic, he has inherited the body type of the father he's never known. Now, in high school, the fat is turning to muscle under the discipline of hard swim team workouts. But that transformation has been slow in coming, since for some time Eric has taken on a private commitment to "stay fat for Sarah Byrnes." Sarah, whose name is a painful pun, was severely burned as a small child not, as we are given to believe early on, because of an accident, but because of a cruel and crazy father who stuck her face and hands into a woodstove in a moment of rage. She has lived with him and his threats for some time; that and her disfiguring scars have made her tough, smart, and self-protective. Eric and she became friends as social outcasts. Well-matched intellectually and in their subversive wit, they write an underground newspaper together. Sarah, however, lands suddenly in the hospital, speaking to no one, making eye contact with no one. Eric faithfully visits her and, per nurses' instructions, keeps up a running one-sided conversation as if she could hear him. As it turns out, she can. She is faking catatonia because the hospital is a safe place, and she has chosen this as an escape route from her father. Eric and a sympathetic coach/teacher go to great lengths to find Sarah's mother-who, it turns out, can't bring herself to be involved in her daughter's life because of her own overwhelming shame. Ultimately the father is apprehended, and Sarah, nearly eighteen, is taken into the coach's home and adopted for what remains of the childhood she bypassed long before. In the course of this main plot, other kids enter the story and in various ways come to terms with serious issues in their own lives, some of which are aired in a "Contemporary American Thought" course where no controversy is taboo.
Summary:Tora lived happily on a mountain farm in Norway until her beloved mother's death and her own subsequent diagnosis with leprosy, an illness common in early 19th-century Norway and one that drove her mother to suicide. Upon diagnosis (at the age of 13) she is taken to the leprosarium in Bergen, from which very few emerge. Most are left there by families whose fear of the disease leads them to abandon even much-loved children, parents, and spouses. There, despite the misery of living among many who consider themselves the living dead, she finds a friend in Marthe, the chief cook and general caregiver, a woman of almost boundless kindness; and the "Benefactor," a pastor who is remarkably unafraid of the disease from which most flee, and who befriends Tora as she grows into an unpromising early adulthood. Another unlikely friend is a noblewoman who has languished, embittered, behind a closed door with a trunk full of her old gowns and several cherished books, including the Bible, The Divine Comedy, Gulliver's Travels, and a popular Norwegian epic about the adventures of Niels Klim at the center of the earth. She gradually softens toward Tora, who cares for her tenderly as the older woman teaches her to read. Reading becomes not only Tora's consolation, but that of many of her fellow inmates. Near the end of her own short, but surprisingly rich life, Tora's father shows up after years of neglect. Forgiving him, almost against her will, she reaches a new level of acceptance of her own mysterious fate. The book includes a short afterword about the actual leprosarium in which the story is situated and about Gerhard Armauer Hansen who in 1873 discovered the bacillus responsible for leprosy, the first bacterium proved to be the cause of a chronic human disease.
Summary:In this collection of "clinical tales," to use Oliver Sacks' term, Sue Hall, an experienced neonatologist who spent some years as a social worker before medical school, tells a remarkable range of stories about newborns in the NICU and their parents. As memoir, the stories record moments in a life full of other people's traumas, disappointments, anxieties, and hard-won triumphs where her job has been to hold steady, find a balance point between professionalism and empathy as young parents go through one of the hardest kinds of loss. Each story is told with clarity and grace, sketching the characters deftly and offering useful medical information along the way on the assumption that many who read the book will do so because they are facing similar challenges and decisions. Each story is followed by a two- to three-page "Note" giving more precise medical background and offering further resources for those who have particular interest in the kind of case it was.
Summary:Where many writers about illness have raised questions about the widespread and often unexamined appropriation of military metaphors to describe how doctors and patients have "struggled with," "combatted," "fought," or "defeated" illness, Dreuilhe embraces it and plays it out to the far reaches of its logic. Part of the brilliance of this AIDS narrative lies in the way it brings new dimensions of meaning to a metaphor that has become so conventional as to be cliché or so imbedded in the language of illness and treatment, it simply fails to be recognized as metaphor. Beginning with the "simple skirmishes at the frontier garrisons," Dreuilhe chronicles the progression of his own illness with the sharp eye of a good war reporter who sees through the chaos of the battlefield to the strategies being played out. "Whenever I take an experimental drug," Dreulhe writes, "—and people fight desperately to be among those privileged to risk their lives—I feel as though I belong to a unit of shock troops parachuted behind enemy lines: already written off as a casualty, I'm entrusted with the task of spearheading the advance."