Showing 1 - 10 of 233 annotations in the genre "Memoir"

Annotated by:
Zander, Devon

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

House on Fire:  The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox is a memoir written by William H. Foege, the physician best known for developing the strategy of ring-vaccination in the eradication of smallpox.  Concisely put by New Scientist, his book is “a mixture of memoir, dry public health guide, and riveting tale of an all-consuming mission.”   

Though a brief read, House on Fire is comprehensive on each of these fronts.  Foege walks us through his life, starting first with his upbringing in Washington state and ending with his role in India as part of the smallpox eradication team there.  Notably, the book’s narrative ends before Foege’s tenure as CDC Director in the late 1970s and early 1980s, focusing explicitly on his involvement in combating smallpox.  Using his career in public health as a framework, he details how he became involved in global health and how each deployment around the world, whether for the CDC, WHO, or Peace Corps, added to his understanding of contagious disease and of how to better approach smallpox containment.  Ever the epidemiologist, Foege does not shy away from including graphs and charts to emphasize his points, especially as they relate to public health data collection.  He takes the reader behind the scenes of conferences, regular meetings, and everyday discussions to show the collaboration necessary for global health work, the planning needed, and the good-natured humor and guile it often requires.  At times, his interactions seem like a who’s who of American public health:  throughout his career, he works with D.A. Henderson, Alexander Langmuir, David Sencer (who also writes the book’s foreword), and Don Francis.  

Outside of his own history, Foege acknowledges that in order to understand smallpox and to understand the mission of eradication it is necessary to understand the disease’s complex history.  He begins the book with the history of smallpox and details the development of the vaccine from its crude precursor, variolation, to Edward Jenner’s early version derived from cowpox.  As he progresses through his story, he notes important historical moments in the battle against smallpox:  the development of the jet injector and bifurcated needle as ways to better administer the vaccine, the elimination of the virus first from countries and then whole continents, and, most poignantly, the final cases of smallpox ever recorded.  

Though the book necessitates some level of public health knowledge, or at least a comfort with viral disease and baseline public health interventions, it consolidates its role as a basic public health guide at the appendix.  In the last pages, Foege reflects on what to do if there were ever a bioterror attack with smallpox, complete with a diagram on how to administer the smallpox vaccine.  

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The Beauty in Breaking

Harper, Michele

Last Updated: Sep-18-2020
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The Beauty in Breaking is the memoir of an African American physician who, in her own words, has “been broken many times” (p. xiii).  

Despite maintaining a veneer of affluence, the author, her mother and siblings live in constant fear of being battered by her father. Following one particularly vicious attack, she accompanies her injured brother to the local emergency room. That day she serendipitously discovers her calling: “As my brother and I left the ER, I marveled at the place, one of bright lights and dark hallways, a place so quiet and yet so throbbing with life. I marveled at how a little girl could be carried in cut and crying and then skip out laughing” (p. 18).  

Much later, the author (Michele Harper) undergoes a shattering breakup and divorce. She endures disappointments at work, some of which, regrettably, can only be explained by the color of her skin.    

As she picks herself up time and time again, Harper discovers her inner resilience: “The previously broken object is considered more beautiful for its imperfections” (p. xiii). She learns from the experience of her own suffering to develop compassion in her clinical work. The bulk of the Beauty in Breaking is devoted to case studies of the author’s clinical encounters with patients in the emergency room.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

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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Annotated by:
Grogan, Katie

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In her memoir Ask Me About My Uterus, science writer Abby Norman tells two intertwined stories: one about her fraught relationship with her own chronically ill body, and another about the fraught relationship between women and medicine. Norman is a sophomore at her dream college when a sudden, unrelenting abdominal pain sends her to the emergency room—and into a revolving door of medical appointments for years to come. Thus begins her diagnostic odyssey, protracted by an infuriating obstacle: not only must she endure excruciating pain, she must convince doctors that it’s real.

Norman is eventually diagnosed with endometriosis but has several frustrating clinical encounters along the way. Her symptoms are repeatedly minimized or disbelieved by doctors of various identities and specialties. One actually says the words that have long been inferred to Norman and so many women before her: “This is all in your head.” Finally receiving an accurate diagnosis provides some measure of clarity about Norman’s pain but little in the way of relief. She learns firsthand that medical knowledge about endometriosis is desperately lacking—a troubling realization given its prevalence. A commonly cited statistic suggests one in ten women have endometriosis but, as Norman notes, most studies have excluded marginalized communities, so the incidence is likely higher. Norman ultimately becomes an expert on the condition, setting her on a path to advocate for herself and others with endometriosis—and to write about it.  

The memoir is organized chronologically, beginning with the onset of Norman’s symptoms about seven years prior to the book’s publication, with occasional flashbacks that draw connections between her current crisis and her difficult childhood. She opens several chapters with descriptions of famous case studies and experiments, situating her own experience within a long and disturbing lineage of women dismissed, misdiagnosed, and mistreated by medical professionals.  

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Maybe You Should Talk to Someone:  A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed is a memoir that takes the reader behind the closed doors of therapists’ offices and into the relationships that are formed between therapists and their patients.  The author and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, most familiar to readers as the writer of The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” column, explores the science, the role, and the goals of psychotherapy through her first-person narration.  The memoir is written chronologically with occasional flashbacks and is broken up into four parts, each progressively exposing more about Gottlieb’s and her patients’ experiences.

Though written by a therapist, the book approaches the therapeutic relationship from all angles.  Just as we see Gottlieb in her role as a therapist in Los Angeles, we also see her on the other side of the couch as a patient.  Coming to therapy in the midst of a breakup, she details her own struggles and relationships.  Interspersed between her sessions with Wendell, a therapist she deftly describes as one from “Therapist Central Casting,” and her own appointments with patients is Gottlieb’s long journey to becoming a therapist (including brief stops in Hollywood and in medical school) and how she came to understand the power of interpersonal relationships. 

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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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The Edge of Every Day

Sardy, Marin

Last Updated: Jan-25-2020
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The Edge of Every Day is the memoir of a woman who comes from a “multiplex” family, in which schizophrenia is manifested in successive generations.  

The book consists of a series of essays.  Some, on topics ranging from gymnastics to building altars, were first published independently and do not appear (at least at first glance) to be linked. The choppy effect this produces speaks to the disorganized thinking that psychotic persons experience.  Other essays propel the tragic narrative of family members slipping into psychosis. At the age of ten, the author Marin Sardy, watches as the “shapeless thief” of schizophrenia steals her mother’s personality away.  Later, as she reaches her thirties, she witnesses her younger brother succumb to an even more pernicious illness.   

Despite Sardy’s mother’s conspicuous symptoms, (she advises her daughter to move to Pluto and informs her that her father has been swept away in a tsunami and replaced by another man), she functions just well enough to avoid being compelled to accept treatment. Thus, no one can stop her from going through a large inheritance and becoming destitute.  

Sardy’s brother Tom suffers his first psychotic break in his 20’s and then rapidly deteriorates.  He repeatedly “cheeks” his meds and falls through the cracks of Anchorage’s mental health system. The author and her family scour the streets, hoping to lure him inside for a shower or hot meal. As the weather worsens, they can only hope he will land in prison if it means not being exposed to the Alaskan elements.  Ultimately, the young man, who once sailed through college with A’s, commits suicide in the bathroom of a psychiatric facility. 

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Responding to a shortage of doctors in rural areas in 2013, Dr. Virji, a Muslim, moved from the urban East coast to a small town in Minnesota.  Welcomed at first, he and his family began, after Trump's election in 2016, to experience withdrawal, suspicion, and outright racism in his own and neighboring towns, despite having established solid, trusting relationships with patients.  His children were being ostracized in school.  Discouraged, he took steps to accept a job in Dubai, but changed his mind after a local pastor invited him to speak in her church to correct common misconceptions about Muslims and to engage his neighbors in deeper dialogue about their differences and commonalities.  The lecture was so successful, he took it further into other towns and parts of the country.  He has stayed in Minnesota and witnessed change because of this invitation and his candid, open-hearted response. 

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A British physician-writer reflects on her topsy-turvy medical training emphasizing the mental and emotional burden of becoming a doctor. In 22 brief chapters with titles including "The Darkest Hour," "Buried," and "The Wrong Kind of Kindness," a struggle between hope and despair furiously plays out - in patients, hospital staff, and the narrator.

Dr. Jo (as one patient calls her) remembers interviewing for medical school admission, the difficulty dissecting a cadaver, starting lots of IV's, dutifully toting an almost always buzzing pager, and breaking bad news. She shares with readers her own serious car accident with resulting facial injuries. She comments on the underfunded UK National Health Service (NHS) that is "held together by the goodwill of those who work within it, but even then it will fracture" (p104).

Anecdotes of memorable encounters are scattered throughout the narrative: a fortyish woman in the emergency department who describes a fast pulse and sense of impending doom diagnosed as having an anxiety attack who ten minutes later suffers a cardiac arrest, a man with severe schizophrenia, a suicide, an elderly blind person, a young woman with metastatic breast cancer.

But the lessons that have stuck with her are primarily dark and somber ones. "Sacrifice and the surrender of the self are woven into the job" (p77). She realizes that "perhaps not all good doctors are good people" (p125) and that as wonderful and essential as the virtue of compassion is, "compassion will eat away at your sanity" (p16). She chooses psychiatry as a specialty where kindness, empathy, creating trust with patients, and careful listening work wonders for people. "I learned that saving a life often has nothing to do with a scalpel or a defibrillator" (pp13-14).

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Marrow: A Love Story

Lesser, Elizabeth

Last Updated: Sep-25-2019
Annotated by:
Burke, Katherine

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Elizabeth (Liz) Lesser receives a call from her sister Maggie, telling her that she has had a relapse of lymphoma. Maggie’s best chance of survival is a bone marrow transplant; of the three other Lesser sisters, Liz is Maggie’s perfect match. In an effort to bolster the stem cells’ chance to be successfully grown, harvested, and transplanted, Maggie and Liz embark on a process to do a “soul marrow transplant;” with the help of a therapist and through many difficult conversations, the sisters resolve sibling rivalries, explore their family history, and forgive each other for old assumptions and judgments. Through the journey they learn to live with vulnerability and authenticity, and as the poet Rumi writes, meet each other in the field “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.”  

Eventually, Maggie’s body begins to succumb to the cancer, and the entire family prepares for her inevitable death. Maggie, an artist who works with dried and pressed botanicals, strives to complete a formidable exhibition entitled “Gone to Seed,” an exploration of life and mortality. Liz seeks forgiveness and reconciliation with their other two sisters. Finally, Maggie and her family wrestle with the decision to end standard treatment, begin palliative care, and consider physician aid in dying.




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