Showing 1 - 10 of 63 annotations contributed by Carter, III, Albert Howard


Native Ohioan Brian Alexander cares a lot about his state and its many economic problems, especially as they impact healthcare. For this book, he’s an on-the-ground reporter covering the events in and around a hospital in the small town of Bryan from 2018 to 2020. He is also an in-depth interpreter, analyzing the many dilemmas of this small hospital and emphasizing that these represent parallel problems of social justice for all of contemporary American healthcare.  An opening chapter reviews some of the difficult history of this area, including economic collapse, lack of public health, lack of health insurance, and collapse of jobs in supply chains for Detroit.           

While the timeline of the story is short, it has wide breadth in local and national issues. These are illustrated by the stories  of specific people. Marc Tingle, a local contractor has a heart attack; his wife falls ill and is diagnosed with cancer. Medical bills mount up. Marc has a second heart attack and a stent inserted. He, like many others receives “rescue” medicine, not preventive healthcare, due to social or economic issues beyond their control. Similarly, we read about Keith Swihart, overweight and diabetic. He has a foot ulcer that requires surgery and later partial amputation. He has eye problems that progress to near blindness. Valerie Moreno injures her back at work but does not report it to the company, considering herself tough, but she must have spine surgery. After being laid off, she has part-time jobs, money problems, and turns to OxyContin pills. These are dramatic and painful stories.  

Many families make “just enough money to disqualify themselves…from Medicaid, but not enough to afford coverage offered by an employer or via the Affordable Care Act” (p. 242).            

Such patients illustrate a deadly whirlpool of issues: lack of routine medical care, inadequate health insurance, no national health program, a collapsed economy with no good jobs or prospects of advancement, poor nutrition, pervasive poverty, racism, sexism, and more.           

Amidst all this, we follow Phil Ennen, the CEO of this hospital (CHWC--for Community Hospitals and Wellness Centers) in Bryan. He wants to rely on his local, traditional values of “we can fix this,” but now he must confront the threats of national hospital chains, the need to cut staff and services, and the seductive lures of adding for-profit and high-tech services. Eventually, he sees no path forward and accepts the board’s invitation to retire. His replacement will have all the same problems.           

A closing section sees the arrival of Covid-19, a threat to this hospital and, of course, the nation at large. Alexander writes, “the virus seeped into the fault lines created by American pathologies. The country had changed from being an ongoing project to improve democratic society and live humanistic ideals to being a framework for fostering corporate profit” (p. 268).  

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Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, is a Black social psychiatrist with wide-ranging interests; her book analyzes factors that support or diminish the health of cities as places that sustain its citizens. Over many years, she has visited and studied 178 cities in 14 countries, and she draws on the work of experts from several disciplines to address the fundamental question: how may we best live together?  

Her discussion moves through five concepts for understanding the health of a city by describing a dozen cities ranging from Paris to Jersey City. Each features a “Scroll,” a two-page presentation of photos, graphics, and text. Her discussions give an inductive basis for her concepts that become criteria for assessing the health of any city.     

(1) Box (“in all sizes and shapes”): the surrounding shape of buildings, street, and sky; it gives an identity to the city’s center with its useful assets such as stores, post office, bank, food, and entertainment.
(2) Circle: the larger area surrounding a Box—maybe a half a mile in radius. Its health requires ease of travel to and from the box.
(3) Line: usually the Main Street that runs through the box, therefore a central path to town. Good transportation is important, and the main street can be quite long, for example Palisades Avenue in Englewood, New Jersey.
(4) Tangle: a dense network of streets and highways that connect to main streets and the Box.
(5) Time: no city is static; as years go by, there are changes for good or ill.  

Fullilove mentions politics, capitalism, poverty, disincentives, tribalism, racism, highways, malls, interstates, and “urban renewal” that destroyed neighborhoods of minorities, as well as redlining against Blacks and gerrymandering school districts to segregate Black and white students. 

In “Naming and Framing the Problem,” she turns to a larger overview of challenges for cities in many places, but especially in the US:
(1) “deep structure of inequality” (p. 211), such as the legacies of slavery, lynching, the 3/5 Compromise, and the Trail of Tears, as well as white supremacy today (2) ecological damage, including industrial farming, deforestation, and global warming, and (3) the inertia of the status quo. 

Citing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Father Richard Rohr, Fullilove affirms love as the root  for social justice, political activism (p. 211) so that cities might become what Thomas Edison termed “factories of invention” that will support the mental health and well-being of all of its citizens. 

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


This engaging and informative book describes the latest scientific understanding of the brain, primarily in humans, but also in other animals. The author, a leading brain researcher, writes clearly and often with humor. 

As Barrett explores the deep history of brains, she emphasizes that as much as some humans may prize thinking, the brain’s central task is not thinking but monitoring and guiding—day and night—the many systems of the body. Brains of all creatures manage a “budget” for various factors such as water, salt, glucose, blood gases, etc., to create an on-going fitness against any future threats.

Our brains and bodies are interlinked, interactive, and unified, not the “triune” brain Carl Sagan popularized in 1977. All animal brains have similar neurons, and all mammals share a “single manufacturing plan” for brain development after birth. Babies’ brains develop according to their genes and in response to their environment, especially to their caregivers. Human brains have flexible networks much like the global air-travel system and can vary from person to person and, individually, over time because of brain plasticity.           

Our individual brains influence—even create—our perceptions and relate to brains of other people through family, language, gesture, culture, and more. Barrett concludes, “Social reality is a superpower that emerges from an ensemble of human brains. It gives us the possibility to chart our own destiny and even influence the evolution of our species” (p. 123). 

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This is a quick and personal history of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra (LSO), a group of Boston area musicians who, in their working lives, are medical personnel. The first of its kind, there are now several such orchestras across the US and scattered throughout the world, notably in Europe. Lisa Wong, a pediatrician and violinist, tells her own history of medicine and music, including her involvement with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra over some 28 years. Other stories of individual doctor/musicians are threaded throughout the book, giving us a personal look at their interdisciplinary enterprise. While their medical specialties, ages, and backgrounds vary widely, while playing in the orchestra and, various professional ranks aside, they accept the direction of the conductor. While Wong mentions antecedents of medicine and music in ancient times, she chooses Dr. Albert Schweitzer as a patron saint for the LSO.

For Wong and her fellow doctors, there are links between music and healing. Music helps keep doctors (and patients) healthy by calming the heartbeat, relaxing muscles, and lifting the mind (p. 86). Music therapy (the psychotherapeutic use of music) and music medicine (the more general uses of music, often in medical settings) can assist in patient care. For example, a dementia patient named Ruth reawakened upon hearing music. Some patients choose to listen to music in the final days of their lives (p. 184).      

For many doctors, music was an early pursuit. Neurological studies suggest that musical training helps develop “structural brain plasticity” that may show benefits in education and training. By contrast, however, sometimes musicians (doctors or not) develop overuse injuries and need specific physical therapy.           

Music has applications in mental health, hospitals in general, and community partners. The LSO has partnered with some 40 nonprofits in the Boston area. In one example, they helped grow the Asian bone marrow registry from 3,000 to 11,000 people (p. 225). An LSO concert raised $30,000 for the Mattapan Community Health Center in South Boston.  

Lisa Wong was president of the organization for 20 years. She writes, “Music goes a long way to heal entire communities. Social justice and social welfare are important determinants of health. Programs that look beyond the music are truly ‘Healing the Community through Music’” (p. 249). 

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


At 23 years of age, Caitlin Doughty went to work for a crematory in Oakland, California, and looked human mortality right in the eye. She reports on her first six years in the funeral industry, learning about it and also resolving to stay in it so that she can improve it. Her eye-witness account provides the basic narrative structure of this book. 

She makes house calls to gather up the dead and drive them to the crematory. She is fascinated by several specific bodies, giving us portraits of them and their past lives. Some of them are our least-well-off citizens, and these occasion touching prose.

Doughty realizes that her fear of death has roots of seeing, at eight years of age, a child dying from a fall in a two-story shopping mall. Her work with bodies helps her heal from her trauma. She imagines that her history may be a parallel for American society as a whole that now hides, covers up, and ignores the realities death and dying. She specifically envisions changes that will result in healthier attitudes and practices in the funeral industry. 

Doughty describes in detail how the dead are embalmed, made up to look “natural,” and presented to relatives at viewings. She criticizes these rituals as demeaning to the dead and causing unnecessary expense to their families. She describes Forest Lawn cemetery as the Disneyland of the Dead, recalling Jessica Mitford’s critical book, The American Way of Death (1963).

Having studied medieval history at the University of Chicago as an undergrad, Doughty brings many texts into her discussion, from history, anthropology, literature, philosophy, medico-legal discussions, religion, and social criticism. All societies have customs for dying, death, and burial; many of them, she feels, are healthier and more realistic than those of contemporary America.         

Finishing her time at the crematory, she decides to stay in the industry in order to improve it. She graduates from the Cypress College of Mortuary Science and passes exams to become a licensed funeral director in the state of California. She posts her essays and manifestos on the Internet under the name “The Order of the Good Death.” Many others join her in a movement against American “death dystopia” (p. 234).  

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Pain Studies

Olstein, Lisa

Last Updated: Jun-10-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


“All pain is simple” reads the opening sentence of this unusual and striking book. The next sentence reads, “And all pain is complex.” These two sentences foreshadow many puzzles to come: how do we live between chaos and control? Why can’t doctors figure migraines out? Why don’t they agree on a treatment for a particular patient? Olstein is a poet and long-term migraine sufferer. Her book offers many observations about pain, and her attempts to define it, describe it, and plumb its nature through language. There is no linear narrative or argument, rather 38 very brief chapters—usually three to five pages—and many of these could be read in a different order. 

Olstein uses the terms “studies” and “research” for her efforts to capture pain, to explain it, and to understand the cause(s) of her disease. Her mother had migraines; women have three times the rate of men; she had a childhood head injury. Do any of these factors explain her disease? No. And what treatments work? She lists some 50 drugs/supplements/activities she has tried to deal with her illness. None of these have worked in a definitive way. Further, she lists some 30 side-effects she has experienced from these various treatments (pp. 74-75). She has had multiple migraines, one lasting three months, but she also says drugs keep pain at bay: “mostly the medication does work” (p 90).

Some disparate figures help her focus her inquiry: Joan of Arc (possibly a migraine sufferer), the TV character Dr. Gregory House (racked with chronic pain, he is an opioid addict), Virginia Woolf, and Hildegard of Bingen (possibly a migraine sufferer). Also ancient writers such as Lucretius, Pliny the Elder, and Antiphon the Sophist, and contemporaries from different fields, such as mathematics and neurology. Also she refers to poems by Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and C. D. Wright, as well as to an article on gendered literature by Siri Hustvedt. 

Largely written during a writing residency, these are incisive notes plus associations as she plumbs not only her illness but also her responses—as poet, as thinker, as searcher for healing—to the bizarre, long, difficult path of her migraines. (We have only brief mentions of her personal and family life.) While she refers to some scientific literature, it is more often that her insights come from artistic fields such a literature, sculpture, drama, and popular music. She writes that her work with a therapist over a dozen years has been helpful to her.

There is no conclusion…nor can there be. Her illness, treatment, and writing are all works in progress. Patients are different; doctors are different; science evolves. In their many forms and presentations, migraines are mysterious and complex, as this book creatively and powerfully shows. Olstein writes, “The beauty, the love, is in what we perceive” (p. 144). We may take this observation as the guiding principle for the book.   

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Offill, Jenny

Last Updated: Apr-03-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Weather is a strange, disturbing, and important book. Offill uses fragments of prose—typically a few lines or half a page—to present a small group of characters in New York City who experience dread, unhealthy behaviors, and many difficult choices. The fragments jump from topic to topic and points of view, suggesting chaos in the characters, in much of modern life, and even in the structure of this novel. “Weather” suggests “whether”: whether humans can survive not only from one day to the next but also in the long term that includes the climate crisis threatening our earth. 

The cast of characters is small and carefully arranged. Lizzie (our main focus) is married to Ben; they have a son Eli. Lizzie’s brother Henry is married to Catherine, and they have a baby girl, Iris; Ben and Lizzie have problematic mothers. A genogram of these and other related characters looks like the cast of a Restoration comedy, full of harmony and good will, but in Weather conflicts swirl and grow chaotically. Catherine divorces Henry. Ben suddenly goes on a three-week trip. Widespread complications include street drugs, alcohol, diet abnormalities, sleep deprivation. There are also mental problems such as confusion, hallucination, loneliness, delusions, and panic, as well as economic difficulties. Only Catherine has a career path, but, at the end of the book, she appears to be “tilting into the abyss too” (p. 179), according to Lizzie. 

While some fragments describe thoughts and actions of the characters, others present a giant whirlpool of cultural, environmental, and historical topics, including doomsday preppers, Rapturists, and the end of civilization, also gun rights, multicultural frictions, popular religion, a need for a strongman to govern, noticeably sick people and loss of medical services. Other topics touched on include hate literature, mob rule, suicide, torture, as well as references to Fukushima, the Holocaust, and 9/11. Many of these worry our characters; others are simply mentioned as “the surround” for all people around the world. Our characters have fantasies of hope but usually feel panic, dread, loneliness, guilt, or despair. Sylvia (Lizzie’s former professor and sometime boss) is an academic who appears to understand climate change and the need to warn people, but she gives up, saying “there’s no hope” (p. 133).  

The first 127 pages swirl around the characters with little progression of story. The next section (4) accelerates the craziness among them all. The last two sections seem more “stable,” but with no actual resolutions. Lizzie says “I will die early and ignobly” (p. 187). In the very last pages, she takes the boy Eli (the only normal major character) to a playground. Later she kneels by her bed and prays for “Mercy” (p. 197). Following the last page, we see only a one-line URL: Is this part of the novel? Do we click on it? 

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A dramatic prologue depicts Joan Kleinman screaming and hitting her husband Arthur in bed. She is ill with Alzheimer’s disease and does not, for that moment, recognize him. The following chapters provide a long flashback, beginning with Arthur’s family background, his youth as a tough street kid in Brooklyn, his medical education, and his marriage to Joan. We learn of their work in China, travels, and professional success. Arthur gradually realizes that the US health care system has become “a rapidly fragmenting and increasingly chaotic and dysfunctional non-system” (p. 126). Further, he sees a reductive focus on patients as mere biological entities, ignoring their personal, familial, and cultural natures. As a result, “Caregiving in medicine has gone from bad to worse.”

Joan suffers from an atypical kind of Alzheimer’s that increased over “that dismal ten years” (p. 156) with Arthur providing care to her, at cost to himself. There is no home health aide, no team approach with doctors, indeed no wider interest in her care other than the state of her diseased brain. Kleinman vividly describes the toll on her and on him.

Kleinman is aware of the privilege he has as a Harvard doctor, well known for his psychiatric work, his teaching and writing, and his wealth—in contrast to other patients and families. Some patients go bankrupt from medical bills.

Visits to nursing homes reveal a wide range of social conditions, contexts, and levels of care; the best have a sense of “moral care” (p. 200). Joan’s final days are hard. Supportive family members agree to her living will and healthcare proxy for morphine pain control only. She dies, apparently “at peace” (p. 232).

In the last pages Kleinman introduces the notion of “soul” as “essential human interactions” (p. 238). He discusses some of the limits of medicine (see paradoxes below) but also praises local efforts to improve humane care, such as team approaches, uses of narrative medicine, and medical/health humanities programs.  

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This illuminating and disturbing book explores how various forms of white supremacy became expressed in policies, laws, and elected officials, such as Donald Trump. Physician and sociologist Metzl details social changes in Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas, where white Americans backed changes that, ironically, dramatically harmed them with gun suicides, school dropouts, worse healthcare, and shorter life spans. For Metzl, “Whiteness” refers not to skin color but to a political and economic system of white privilege.

Metzl's thesis that: “Trump supporters were willing to put their lives on the line in support of their political beliefs” was, in fact, a sort of “self-sabotage” (pp. 5-6). While a conservative political movement fostered white racial resentment, largely in lower-income communities, the mainstream GOP did its part by crafting policies against the Affordable Care Act, higher taxes, and restrictions on guns. An atmosphere of polarization and political stasis grew. Metzl writes: “Compromise, in many ways, coded as treason” (p. 11).  

Metzl focuses on the examples of Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas to “suggest how the racial system of American fails everyone” (pp. 16, 20). He visits each state, leading focus groups, interviewing formally and informally, reading newspapers, and inductively formulating concepts that seem to explain the nonsensical behavior of rejecting helpful programs. For example, because “risk” in Missouri has become a code name for possible attacks by black people, white people buy guns, especially when restrictions are removed. Many white men feel that a gun (or many guns) restores their privilege, but suicide of white males, often low-income, goes up. Metzl’s statistics and charts show contrasts with other states with stricter laws and lower suicide rates. He calls for preventive medicine to lower such deaths.  

For Tennessee, the Affordable Care Act offered many benefits to poor or middle-income people, but Republicans (and especially Trump) attacked it as big government over-reach, socialism, exorbitant cost, a program that would help minority people, for example “welfare queens.” “Cost” became a proxy for the “we don’t like it,” even when the economics would be favorable for good healthcare for all. Blacks were generally in favor of ACA, but white blue-collar men swore by their independence and autonomy. Neighboring Kentucky accepted ACA, and ten graphs included in the book clearly chart the better outcomes for Kentucky in such areas as insurance coverage, death rates, and seeing a doctor.  

Metzl returns to Kansas, where he grew up and recalls the pride Kansans had in their state. Republican Governor Sam Brownback enacted massive tax cuts with large reductions to state services and school funding, an “experiment” in “epic defunding.” The GOP, Tea Party, Koch brothers, and “trickle down” theories all played a part in benefiting the wealthy financially, while minority and lower-income groups paid more. Infrastructure, such as roads, suffered. Untested charter schools collected wealthy white students, while public schools plunged in funding, test scores, and graduation rates (see 17 graphs). Since education is a predictor of health, there are and will be long-term costs to Kansans, especially for minority groups.  

Metzl attacks the “Castle Doctrine” (“a man’s home is…”) as a symbol of narcissism, individualism, and as a risk for all citizens when social structures are abandoned. He closes with some hopeful examples of social change for the better.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Treatise


Louise Aronson, a geriatrician, argues that we should create Elderhood as the third era of human aging, joining the earlier Childhood and Adulthood. This new concept will allow us to re-evaluate the richness of this later time, its challenges as body systems decline, and, of course, the choices of managing death. This important and valuable book is a polemic against modern medicine’s limits, its reductive focus, and structural violence against both patients and physicians. She argues for a wider vision of care that emphasizes well-being and health maintenance for not only elders but for every stage of life.   
Aronson argues that contemporary society favors youth and values of action, speed, and ambition, while it ignores—even dislikes—aging, older people, and the elderly. She says ageism is more powerful than sexism or racism—as bad as those are. Medical schools ignore the elderly, focusing on younger patients, especially men, and medical students perceive geriatrics as boring, sad, and poorly paid. Primary care, in general, seems routine and dull. By contrast, medical treatments, especially high-tech, are exciting and lucrative. In medical schools a “hidden curriculum” focuses on pathophysiology, organ systems, and drugs, ignoring patients’ variability as well as their suffering and pathos. Further, business and industrial models make “healthcare” a commodity, and nowadays “doctors treat computers, not people” (p. 237). Aging has become “medicalized” as a disease. Medicine fights death as an enemy, often with futile treatment that may extend a dying process.
Instead, Aronson says we need to bring back the human element, putting care of people at the center, not science. She calls for a new paradigm with ten assumptions (p. 378). Number 2 reads: “Health matters more to both individuals and society than medicine.” Number 9 claims, “As an institution, medicine should prioritize the interests of the people over its own.”  
Many practical changes would follow, from redesigned “child-proof” drug containers to buildings and public spaces that are more congenial to older people—and, in fact, to everyone else. We should change our attitudes about old age. For example, we might use the adjective “silver” for a medical facility that is friendly to and usable by older people. Changing our attitudes about aging can help all of us imagine more positive futures for each one of us and for all of our society.

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