Showing 1 - 10 of 85 annotations in the genre "Essay"

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Pearl, a plastic surgeon and former CEO of a large medical group, writes powerfully and poignantly about the major role of physician culture - the customs and rituals, traits and beliefs of doctors. This culture is entrenched through years of medical training. He decides that physician culture "can be both a virtuous force and an equally destructive influence" (p70).

Some of that culture is readily on display: attire, tools of the trade, unique medical terminology, insensitive humor, frequent handwashing. Positive aspects of physician culture include self-confidence, integrity, compassion, and selflessness. Negative elements are ingrained to keep emotions and dread at bay: detachment, callousness, denial. This culture of medicine must navigate dual interests - healing (the mission of medicine) and profit (income, status, prestige).

Pearl suggests an evolutionary pathway for physician culture that he dubs "the five C's of Cultural Change" - confront, commit, connect, collaborate, contribute. He tackles issues of sexism, racism, and elitism in American healthcare. He explores the suffering of physicians and their need to seek forgiveness - often secretly and even in cases of perceived "failure" when everything possible was done correctly. His discussion is filled with agonizing, frustrating, and loving stories about patients, family members, and colleagues (including physician suicide).

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

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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Pain Studies

Olstein, Lisa

Last Updated: Jun-10-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

“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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Summary:

Bodies of Truth gathers twenty-five essays about experiencing illnesses and disabilities from the perspectives of patients, healthcare professionals, and families. These personal stories join the growing company of narratives that reflect on the inner experience of illness or caring for the ill and on the social circumstances that influence those experiences. In addition to the diversity of perspectives, the editors have selected pieces about an exceptionally wide range of health conditions: multiple sclerosis, brain damage, deafness, drug addiction, Down syndrome, pain, cancer, infertility, depression, trauma, HIV, diabetes, food allergies, asthma. They also include essays on the death of a child and an attempted suicide.  

The essays resist easy categorization. In their Preface, the editors explain that they took “a more nuanced approach” to organizing the contributions loosely by themes so that they would “speak to each other as much as they speak to readers.” For example, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke’s spirited “Rendered Mute” calls out the OB-GYN who refused to remove his mask during delivery to allow this deaf mother-in-the-making to read his lips to exchange vital communications. Her essay is followed by Michael Bérubé’s “Jamie’s Place.” In it the father recounts the emotionally and logistically complicated path he and his son with Down syndrome navigate as they seek a place for him to live as independently as possible as an adult. This sequence invites readers to listen to two stories about disability from differing parental perspectives and circumstances. But perhaps readers can also to find commonalities in ways social attitudes toward disability fold themselves into the most intimate moments of the families’ lives.  

Several of the essays take readers into a professional caregiver’s medical and moral struggles. In “Confession” nurse Diane Kraynak writes sensitively about a newborn in intensive care who distressed her conscience. She was troubled by both the extensive medical interventions he was given “because we can” and their failure to save him. When Matthew S. Smith was an exhausted neurology resident, he ignored a stroke patient who inexplicably handed him a crumpled paper. Scribbled on it was a ragged, ungrammatical, and urgently expressive poem, which he read only years later, admonishing himself “to cherish the moments of practice” that could “change your life forever (“One Little Mind, Our Lie, Dr. Lie”). Madaline Harrison’s “Days of the Giants” recounts “the sometimes brutal initiation” of her early medical training decades ago. Narrating those struggles has led her to “compassion: for my patients, for myself as a young doctor, and for the students and residents coming behind me.” 

Overall, the essays range widely across medical encounters. After attending her husband’s death, Meredith Davies Hadaway (“Overtones”) became a Certified Music Practitioner who plays the harp to calm hospice patients. Dr. Taison Bell graciously thanks a pharmacist that he regards as a full partner in his treatment of patients (“A Tribute to the Pharmacist”). Tenley Lozano (“Submerged”), a Coast Guard veteran, was traumatized first by the various abuses of male supervisors, once nearly drowning, and then by her struggle to receive psychiatric care.  

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist who has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder.  The Collected Schizophrenias is a book of personal essays that was the 2016 winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. 

A precocious young person on a track to success, Wang experiences a manic episode at Yale that leads to her first hospitalization.  After a second hospitalization, her college washes its hands of her.  Hitting roadblocks time and time again requires her to rebuild her life over and over.  This is not a conventional chronological autobiography but rather essays that provide different approaches to the author’s experience of mental illness.  The plural “schizophrenias” of the title encompasses the whole schizophrenic spectrum of disorders.  As Wang explains, her own diagnosis is “the fucked-up offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia” (p. 10).  

In an essay entitled “High-Functioning” we learn how the author, having been a fashion editor, knows how to pass for normal: “My makeup routine is minimal and consistent.  I can dress and daub when psychotic and when not psychotic.  I do it with zeal when manic.  If I’m depressed, I skip everything but the lipstick.  If I skip the lipstick, that means I haven’t even made it to the bathroom mirror” (p.44).  

Later, in “The Choice of Children,” volunteering at a camp for bipolar children makes Wang think about what it would be like to inflict her diagnosis on her own offspring.  In “Reality, On-Screen” she attempts to convey the sensation of decompensating to psychosis.  And in “Yale Will Not Save You” she considers the failure of universities to accommodate mentally ill students. 

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Citing numerous studies that might be surprising to both lay and professional readers, Dr. Rakel makes a compelling case for the efficacy of empathic, compassionate, connective behavior in medical care.  Words, touch, body language, and open-ended questions are some of the ways caregivers communicate compassion, and they have been shown repeatedly to make significant differences in the rate of healing. The first half of the book develops the implications of these claims; the second half offers instruction and insight about how physicians and other caregivers can cultivate practices of compassion that make them better at what they do.  

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The River of Consciousness

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Two weeks before his death in 2015, Sacks oversaw this collection of essays and charged Kate Edgar, Daniel Frank, and Bill Hayes to arrange its publication. The essays touch on various fields—evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and focus on major figures such as Darwin, Freud, and William James. The major theme—as indicated by the volume’s title—is how minds (of humans, chimps, even jellyfish) interpret and remember what the senses perceive in normal and in limited states. While we read in the Foreword that “a number” of the pieces originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, there are no citations for dates and places.  

“Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers”: Sacks describes Darwin’s research with flowers that support evolution; flowing plants display qualities of sensitivity to “contact, pressure moisture, chemical gradients, etc” (p. 19). Sacks recalls the pleasures of investigating flowers as a youth in his London garden.  

“Speed” : Drawing on personal experience and a wide variety of anecdotes (including his encephalitic patients described in Awakenings), Sacks muses about mental perceptions, slow and fast, normal and drug-enhanced, dreams, and our ability to imagine “all speeds, all time” (p. 59).  

“Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms”: Starting with Darwin and coming forward, Sacks discuss how worms, jellyfish, and even trees may be considered to exhibit “mind.” Near the end, we read, “if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of a significant and individual sort, one has to allow it for an octopus too” (p. 76).  
   
“The Other Road: Freud as Neurologist”: The opening paragraph ably sums up the essay. “Everyone knows Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, but relatively few know about the twenty years (from 1876 to 1896) when he was primarily a neurologist and anatomist; Freud himself rarely referred to them in later life. Yet his neurological life was the precursor to his psychoanalytic one, and perhaps an essential key to it (p. 79).   
   
The next three may be considered as a group because they deal with lapses or outright failures in perception, memory, or health. Because Sacks reports on his own life experience, these are the most personal.
“The Fallibility of Memory” describes Sacks’s memories of the bombing of London in the winter of 1940-41. It turns out that one memory, according to family members, is right, but the other is actually a version of a letter describing a bombing.

The essay continues to discuss such topics as false memories, auto-plagiarism, unconscious plagiarism, and fabulation. He concludes, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine” (p. 121). In a short piece, “Mishearings,” Sacks reports how his increasing deafness makes new (and sometimes hilarious) perceptions of spoken words.  

Surely the last written—and in many ways the most poignant—“A General Feeling of Disorder” discusses feelings of being ill. Sacks, at age 81, describes his metastatic liver cancer and, in detail, an arduous treatment. Although warned of weakness and pain, he writes of “a sort of negative orgasm of pain” and other disturbing side effects (pp. 155-59) in vivid detail.  

“The Creative Self” discusses forms of creativity including play, scholarship, unconscious borrowing, and subconscious insight. Sacks is less interested in a Freudian model than an evocation of “an entire hidden, creative self” (p. 144).            

The final two, “The River of Consciousness” and “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science” deal with theories of how the mind works and, more collectively, how scientific breakthroughs occur. The former essay explores cinematic models for perception in James and Bergson and much later models of the 100 billion neurons of the brain working on networks, coalitions, or populations. He finds that a specific mechanism is unlikely to be found and, “Even the highest powers of art—whether in film or theater, or literary narrative—can only convey the faintest intimation of what human consciousness is really like” (p. 174).

In “Scotoma” (or “memory hole”), he looks at discoveries that were over-looked for many years . Later they were rediscovered as important for understanding various phenomena: Tourette’s syndrome, phantom limbs, and, his specialty, migraines.

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Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

An extended essay on the experience of child immigrants woven around the forty questions that author Valeria Luiselli asks in her work as a translator for children seeking entry into the United States.

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Summary:

Dr. Monika Renz’s work with dying patients is unusual if not unique in the way she appropriates and applies insights from Jungian depth psychology, practices available in patients’ faith traditions, and musically guided meditation to invite and support the spiritual experiences that so often come, bidden or unbidden, near the end of life.  An experienced oncologist, Dr. Renz offers carefully amassed data to support her advocacy of focused practices of spiritual care as a dimension of palliative care, but is also quite comfortable with the fact that “neither the frequency nor the visible effects of experiences of the transcendent prove that such experience is an expression of grace” because “unverifiability is intrinsic to grace.”  Still, her long experience leads her to assert not only that “grace” can be a useful, practical, operative word for what professional caregivers may witness and mediate but also that affirmation and support of patients’ spiritual, religious, or transcendent experiences in the course of dying can amplify and multiply moments of grace, which manifest as sudden, deep peace in the very midst of pain, profound acceptance, openness to reconciliations, or significant awakenings from torpor that allow needed moments of closure with loved ones.  Describing herself as “an open-minded religious person and a practicing Christian,” she reminds readers that God is a loanword, whose basic form in Germanic was gaudam, a neutral participle.  Depending on the Indo-Germanic root, the word means “the called upon” or “the one sacrificed to . . . .”  Openness to the divine in both patients and caregivers, Dr. Renz argues, can and does make end-of-life care a shared journey of discovery and offer everyone involved a valuable reminder that medicine is practiced, always, at the threshold of mystery.

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Is It All in Your Head?

O'Sullivan, Suzanne

Last Updated: Mar-17-2017
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Suzanne O’Sullivan is a neurologist in the British National Health Service. She has a particular interest in psychosomatic illnesses, and in this book, she covers what she has learned about them. O’Sullivan provides these learnings mostly from clinical experience rather than as findings from empiric studies on psychosomatic illnesses.   

Each chapter is built around one or more case studies that focus on particular psychosomatic illnesses, and include historical perspectives and various theories that might explain why they occur.  

The cases O’Sullivan uses presented themselves as seizures, paralysis, urinary tract troubles, generalized and localized pain, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, blindness, and dystonia. Patients sometimes came to her with pre-determined diagnoses such as epilepsy, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis, and fibromyalgia among others. O’Sullivan is emphatic that psychosomatic illnesses are not just any presentation of illness that cannot be linked to a pathological basis. Psychosomatic illnesses arise from “the subconscious mind [that] reproduces symptoms that make sense to the individual’s understanding of how a disease behaves.” (p. 83) Illness presentations that are feigned or self-inflicted (e.g., Munchausen’s syndrome) are not psychosomatic illnesses in O’Sullivan’s view.
 

Each chapter delves into some particular aspect of psychosomatic illness relevant to the case study. These include history (e.g., role of the uterus in hysteria), mechanisms at work (e.g., conversion reactions, dissociation), triggers (e.g., stress, loss, personality traits), factors (e.g., previous illness experiences), illness behavior disorders (e.g., associating illness to benign physical sensations), and the higher incidence seen among females. Though O’Sullivan teases out various characteristics and workings of psychosomatic illnesses, she admits that they remain vexing to clinicians because, “almost any function of the body can be affected in almost any way.” (p. 170)

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