A History of the Present Illness
Genre: Collection (Short Stories)
- Carter, III, Albert Howard
- Date of entry: Mar-01-2013
- Last revised: Mar-08-2013
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).