Arthur Kleinman

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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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