Showing 11 - 20 of 755 Nonfiction annotations

Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Carlo Cipolla chronicles the 1630 bubonic plague outbreak in Northern Italy. At various places in the text, he refers to his compact volume as an “essay,” a “tale,” and a “book.” Readers during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic could call it a “prologue,” a “warning,” or a “horror story foretold.”  

The plague ravaged much of Northern Italy from 1630 to 1631. Cipolla focuses on a particular village, Monte Lupo, because “so exceptionally rich is the documentation of [its] story that it allows the historian to recapture emotions, attitudes, and behavior of common people.” The documentation led him to uncommon detail “on the relationship between Faith and Reason, Church and State at a social level” (p. ix). 

Reading like an historical essay, Cipolla first sets up the tensions arising between the Church and State Church during the plague epidemic. The “scientific revolution” had advanced enough by 1630 that regional Health Magistrates acted based on experience rather than faith. Most clergy and their followers still “preferred to believe rather than observe…[and] had not the slightest doubt: processions and similar ceremonies were the only way to placate divine wrath and put an end to the scourge” (p. 7). But, the divide between Church and State in this case is not so clear as that, Cipolla notes, because some of the senior Health Magistrates served as high-ranking church leaders themselves. 

Cipolla points to public health measures taken in Northern Italy before the 1630 plague outbreak that might have, ironically, heightened tensions, even though they were born from the terror and suffering epidemics caused during the previous two centuries. The changes that resulted were, in Cipolla’s view, “a strange mixture of brilliant intuition, sound common sense, and absurd prejudice” (p. 12). However rational these measures seemed, “they caused great misery and severe privations [through] the segregation of entire families in their homes, the separation of kindred in the horror of the pesthouses, the closing of markets and trade, the consequent lack of work and wide-spread unemployment, the burning of furnishings and goods” (p. 13). By the time the plague took hold in 1630, necessary public health measures were already unpopular.
 

Cipolla uses the walled-village Monte Lupo as his case study. Around 150 families lived inside its walls when the plague struck during the summer of 1630. He details how Health Magistrates struggled to gain control of the outbreak while facing open rebellion fueled by “ignorance, egoism, avarice, and bullying” (p. 14). He names and profiles key figures and describes various events. 

The central event in Cipolla’s tale is a “procession” in Monte Lupo featuring a crucifix people believed had “miraculous properties” (p. 41). The Health Magistracy took aggressive actions to prevent and then stop the procession. Alas, Cipolla reports: “All this was in vain. It was like preaching to the wind: the church was soon packed with men and women, boys and girls, who had come to gaze at and adore the crucifix,” (p. 47). Festivities carried into the evening and on to a neighboring town (San Miniatello). Mayhem, illness, and death ensued. 
 

The last death in Monte Lupo occurred on August 11. Cipolla follows the subsequent investigations searching for people encouraging exposure to a lethal, contagious disease, and for people who became infected and died as a result. He reflects on the juxtaposition of epidemiological methods used to stop the epidemic and the fight religious leaders and followers waged against them. He muses about “emotions, attitudes, and behavior of all segments of a society in a period distant in many ways from our own” (p. 85). Written in 1977, the objects of his musing were only four decades distant from becoming evident again. 

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Global Healing

Thornber, Karen

Last Updated: Dec-14-2020
Annotated by:
Bruell , MS, Lucy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Karen Thornber is the Harry Tuchman Levin Professor in Literature and Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. In this expansive nearly 700 page book, she draws on work from global literature to explore the many ways societies view illness, stigma and healing.  She defines global literature as “narratives that grapple with challenges and crises that have global implications or counterparts globally, whether at present, in the past, or likely in the future” (p.10). 

The book is divided into three sections: Shattering Stigmas, in which she looks at Leprosy, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s disease; Humanizing Healthcare; and Prioritizing Partnerships.  Among the topics she addresses are patient-focused care as an imperative, the need to advance partnerships in caregiving, and support that extends beyond family and friends to the patient’s relationships with health professionals.  Healing, she notes, involves “changing the circumstances that exacerbate or even trigger a health condition, enabling the individual to obtain long-term wellbeing liberated from as much distress, if not disease, as possible.” (P331).

Thornber has selected literature that addresses the illness experience and the need to reduce suffering and promote healing, which she places within three interwoven  frameworks:  “Societies/communities, healthcare settings, and families/ friendships” (p.583).  She looks at both positive approaches to care as well as the negative impact of suffering, whether from stigma, inaccessibility to care, or dehumanized care. The book considers literary works from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania, many that will be new to readers.  

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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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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

The author, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, says his book title “is a terrible question” (p. 1), because “it is not possible to select the best health care system overall.” However, he continues, “it is possible and reasonable to make judgments about better and worse systems” (p. 351), such as considering “which country has the best consumer choice,…the most innovative health care system,…or best addresses the needs of chronically ill patients” (p. 7). And, that’s what he does.

Emanuel and his research partners compare eleven, high-income countries: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, France, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, and China. They examine eight content areas: history; coverage; financing; payment; the delivery of care; prescription drug regulation; human resources; and future challenges. These content areas serve as the subject headings for the chapters covering each country. In the penultimate chapter, “Who’s the Best?,” Emanuel assesses and judges each content area across countries. (Spoiler alert: the United States does not fare well.) The concluding chapter is built around “six lessons for improving the US health care system” (p. 385), followed by a coda where Emanuel considers how his findings relate to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Together

Murthy, Vivek

Last Updated: Nov-09-2020
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Longform journalism

Summary:

Since the first surgeon general was sworn into office in the 19th century, the Office of the Surgeon General has positioned itself as the leading voice on public health matters in the United States. In recent history, the office has had its highest profile campaigns rallying against issues such as tobacco use, obesity, and HIV/AIDS. Considering the combination of prevalence, morbidity, and mortality associated with these health issues, there is no doubt that any effort to stem the tide was a worthwhile endeavor.

When Dr. Vivek Murthy became the surgeon general in 2014, his office continued the historical campaigns against these health issues. At the same time, Dr. Murthy began investigating a looming epidemic within our borders: loneliness and social isolation.

It may be hard to convince the average person that loneliness is a problem of similar scale as tobacco use, obesity, or AIDS. There is no question that loneliness is unpleasant, even if it only lasts for a few moments. But the notion that one’s state of mind can predispose to disease or premature death somehow feels like a stretch. Addressing this skepticism, Dr. Murthy writes in his book about Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University who also faced a great deal of cynicism surrounding her research into the effect of social relationships on “everything from our behavior to our cellular function.” She had a breakthrough in 2010 when she published a massive study analyzing the health outcomes of over 300,000 participants, categorized by their degree of social connectedness. She found that social isolation was significantly linked to premature death, representing a risk nearly as serious as pack-per-day smoking, and more serious than obesity, alcohol use, and lack of exercise. Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s research spurred further studies which linked loneliness to heart disease, stroke, and depression, amongst other diseases.

These findings are hard to ignore, especially in light of the ongoing opioid addiction crisis and rises in teenage depression and suicide, all of which have been linked to loneliness and social isolation. In Together, Dr. Murthy weaves together scientific research, personal anecdotes, and current events to create a manifesto for tackling the next great public health crisis.

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Summary:

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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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:
DiLeonardo, Olivia

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

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Dr. Weaver-Hightower wrote, illustrated, and published this powerful graphic work in the Journal of Medical Humanities.  The comic itself is presented in a traditional paneled format, with a few exceptions, and rendered in a moody ink wash in black, white, and various shades of darker and lighter greys. The story is told in the authentic, sometimes faltering voice, of the father of Thomas and Ella, a pair of twin infants who died at 22 and 24 weeks into pregnancy. Beginning with their harrowing trip to the hospital, the comic describes the father and mother’s loss of Ella, shortly after she was born prematurely; their subsequent wait for Thomas to reach the “viable” age of 24 weeks; his stillbirth; and the couple’s sudden discharge from the hospital, going home with “empty arms”.  The story then transitions into “The Long After”, including the funeral and the phases of the parents’ grieving process.  The father describes his grief, frustrations, the couple’s differing ways of coping, and his ambivalence and anger toward religion as a source of comfort or deeper understanding.  On the last page, he recounts their hopes and fears as they enter into their second pregnancy, concluding with panels of the father wrestling with how to understand and process this loss.  The final panel is an image of the father in profile, expressionless, saying nothing, a fitting conclusion to a story for which words seem to fail. 

With this piece, the author introduces us to the genre of the “research comic”. The comic is followed by a methodological appendix, which explains the author’s process for choosing, capturing, and relating this history in words and illustrations, as well as his rationale for selecting a comic or graphic memoir format for the piece.  The author also elaborates upon the concept of the comic as a form of “rigorous, informative research” (226).  The appendix is very interesting and will satisfy the curiosity of readers asking the questions, “How did he do this?”, or “Why is this story a comic?”, but the piece stands on its own without the appendix, as well.  

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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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