Tag Archives: medicine

Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut

I was intensely interested in reading Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So for a couple of different reasons. The first one is that it’s by the son of Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors. The second is that the premise of the book is that he discusses what it’s like to be both a successful doctor and a person with bipolar disorder. I liked his description of how his life unfolded and appreciated his insight into his life as a whole. I’ve not read his fiction, but I would say that his ability to show the reader what it is like to have a mental disorder while maintaining a successful and functional (for the most part) lifestyle shows there might be a familial tie for writing talent.

Vonnegut talks a bit about what it was like to grow up with his father. Kurt was a gruff man – if you want to put it mildly – and, despite the good things he did, like taking in his nephews after their parents died, Mark Vonnegut doesn’t give the impression that he ever did become an outwardly caring father. What he does show us is that his father was there when he needed him, like during his hospitalizations.

One aspect of Vonnegut’s book that I especially liked was that he wrote about what it was like to be in school and become successful at his profession and then have his disease get out of control. I think most people don’t get the fact that people with bipolar disorder can recover. It’s important, in my opinion, that people like the author come forward and talk about the fact that, yes, he has a mental illness, and, yes, he has been hospitalized for it, and now he’s doing well as a physician (and not only a physician, but a pediatrician).

I also liked that he talked about self-medication. For him, the substance of choice was alcohol, and it caused serious problems for him and his family. No matter what the drug, I think it’s important for people to know that substance abuse can be a sign of undiagnosed or improperly treated mental illness.

One thing I didn’t like was that Vonnegut appears to still have some of the risk-taking behaviors. He became a mushroom hunter and, at one point, ate one that wasn’t so good for him. His wife had to take him to the hospital to get his stomach pumped. I don’t know if it was included as an example to say that he’s not “cured” and that treatment of bipolar disorder is an ongoing process, but I found it scary that he might not realize that he still has urges to do reckless things that he might not have even full reflected on.

Overall, I’m glad Vonnegut wrote Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So. A lot of people will be educated and a lot of people will find hope within its covers.

Rating: 4/5.

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Hot Lights, Cold Steel by Michael J. Collins

Hot Lights, Cold Steel is, in a way, like many other books I’ve read before.  It’s a medical memoir, a genre I have an interest in.  Yet it manages to set itself apart through Collins’ sensitive and insightful prose about not only his training, but, really, about the entirety of his life through the four years of his residency.  Collins has written a book enjoyable for many reasons, a feat not often achieved by a book typically focused on one, partitioned part of the author’s life.

The book starts off with a scenario Collins faced toward the end of his residency — being in charge of the almost impossible decision of whether to amputate a fourteen-year-old’s leg.  Collins then takes us back to the beginning of his residency at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in orthopedic medicine, outlining his four years there in chapters labeled by month.

One of the most refreshing things about Hot Lights, Cold Steel is that Collins is so open about the fear and uncertainty he had going in.  He felt inadequate and unprepared for a residency at such a renowned medical center.  He discusses his efforts to study up on procedures and conditions he would have to do.  He discusses the friendships that he made and the quick understanding he had to make of the personalities of each of the attending physicians he worked under.

More interesting was his discussion of the paltry amount of money a resident makes, even at a place like Mayo Clinic.  He found himself forced to moonlight at a hospital in a city ninety miles to the west, which meant that he was even more exhausted than the average resident.

Making his life more complicated was his family situation.  He had, at the beginning of his residency, a wife and a young daughter.  By the end of the four years, they had added three more children to the mix.  His wife, who had training as a nurse, became a stay-at-home mom out of necessity.  Collins is very open about the strain the long hours away from home placed on their marriage, and how his relationships with his children suffered.  This was actually the part of the book I found most compelling — many of these medical memoirs discuss the physical exhaustion, but rarely discuss the toll the long hours and unpredictable schedules can take on a family.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about Hot Lights, Cold Steel.  Collins has produced a book that allows the reader into both his personal and professional life with remarkable ease.  From his writing, he feels like someone anyone could know, yet he has the brilliance to write about his experiences with both respect and humor.  This ability just makes him more interesting, and makes his book more appealing.

Rating: 5/5.

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Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

While Cutting for Stone was on my reading list, it was not particularly high; it was a book I’d get to eventually.  My mother, however, bought it, read it, and passed it along.  I am glad she did, because Cutting for Stone is an engrossing family saga that, despite its length, I managed to get through in only a couple of days.

The book is about Anglo-Indian twins born in Ethiopia to a nun-nurse and a surgeon.  Abandoned by the father (who tried to perform in-the-birth-canal infanticide) and having lost their mother to the trials of their birth, they are taken in by the two other doctors at Missing Hospital.  The book follows Marion, the firstborn of the two boys, and his experience growing up in a multitude of ways: as a twin, as the child of doctors, as a ferengi despite having been born in Addis Ababa, as a witness to upheaval in Ethiopia, and as a romantic idealist.

Verghese does a wonderful job of crafting the events of Marion’s childhood and adolescence.  Marion and his brother, Shiva, have a companion in Genet, an Eritrean servant’s daughter.  The pettiness of his childhood grudges and mixed feelings about Genet and Shiva snowball into something very interesting throughout the book.  His emotions are understandable and very human.

Hema and Ghosh, the two doctors who, for all intents and purposes are Marion and Shiva’s parents, are very good parents.  The only thing I question about them is something that also makes the book totally worth reading if you’re at all interested in surgery: they allow their sons access to medical texts, Gray’s Anatomy, and, eventually, let them watch and participate in procedures.

The most amazing component of this book is the detailed surgical and medical description.  Abraham Verghese is himself a physician, and he manages to create a real surgical scene while not making it feel as if it were artificially plopped down in the middle of a chapter.  It’s just so wonderfully crafted that I can barely believe it.

The only drawback Cutting for Stone has is that the ending wraps up a bit too neatly.  There are a few too many coincidences and a few too many things that just cause me to lose my suspension of disbelief.  This is most likely because the rest of the book is so realistic.  I understand Verghese’s choices regarding how he ended the book; I just don’t feel like they made for the most realistic — or satisfying — conclusion.

Overall, Cutting for Stone is a well-crafted, realistic tale about a family both brought together and torn apart by the same things — medicine, education, and love.  It’s too bad that the last part of Marion’s story didn’t hold to the realistic standard Verghese had set up through the vast majority of the book.

Rating: 4/5.

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Stitches by David Small

I must be somehow fascinated by people who have become ill.  I’ve read quite a few books dealing with sickness in some fashion.  I’ve even read another graphic novel about a case of cancer, Mom’s Cancer.  But Stitches is more than just being about David Small’s childhood disease.  In fact, I would argue that his cancer is one of many events he uses to highlight a seriously dysfunctional family and its impact on him.  This makes Stitches compelling in a way that a straight story about his health never could have been.

Small’s drawings make up no small part of setting the mood and tone of the book, which is why I love that he chose to draw his memoir.  The people are almost uniformly drawn tight, with knit brows, frowns, and generally hostile body language.  No one is portrayed as friendly toward Small until we meet his psychologist toward the end, and he’s drawn as a rabbit — I believe he was the March Hare, mainly because Small had a fascination with Alice in Wonderland as a child.

Small also has an incredible sense of when pictures can convey more than words ever could.  The horror of the research floor of the hospital, for example, is much more effective because Small shows us the jars of fetuses, then his face, in alternate cells.  It makes way more of an impact than writing something on how he saw the jars and imagined that one got out and started chasing him.

Now, down to the actual memoir.  Small’s family is dysfunctional in the extreme.  His father is mostly absent, home only occasionally from his job as a radiologist at a Detroit hospital.  When he is home, he alternates between lecturing his son and giving him x-rays to look at his sinuses, which most likely caused his subsequent cancer.  His maternal grandmother is a nutcase, treating Small in a horrible fashion when they visit her in southern Indiana.

But it is his mother who is truly the worst person in Small’s life.  She is cold, almost always angry.  She blames Small when he develops the lump on his neck that requires surgery, telling him “doctors cost money and money is something that is in short supply in this house!”  After an original misdiagnosis of the lump as a cebaceous cyst, they wait three and a half years before allowing a surgeon operate on his neck.  During the gap, his parents bought a new car and new furniture.  After the removal of his lump, along with one of his vocal cords, his mother didn’t tell him the lump was cancer.  She showed no sympathy for her son, who suffered from recurring nightmares and would frequently turn on all the lights in the house.  Her concern was with the electric bill.

Her miserable and, at times, tyrannical, behavior could possibly be explained by her sexual orientation and the influence of her mother.  She may have felt trapped in her marriage by society and her children.  It is almost inconceivable, though, that someone would have the capacity to so hate their own child, a being dependent upon her to do what is best for him.  Being frustrated with how her life turned out cannot excuse her callousness for a boy who was sick and needed her help.

The only good thing they appear to have done for him is put him in therapy.  His therapist was able to clarify many things for him, and I believe that therapist made it possible for Small to have a relatively normal post-childhood life.  Really, the therapist showed him how a caring relationship should work, and quite probably saved Small from following in his mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps.

This book is phenomenal in its exploration of what it’s like growing up in a hostile environment.  As someone who has two caring and supportive parents, Small provided me with insight into how one’s environment can shape you.  One can end up like his mother — twisted, bitter, and cruel — or you can end up like him, a survivor who came through his ordeals, both regarding his health and his home, and became a successful man who becomes the maverick of his family by being normal.  Stitches is a superior memoir that packs a lot of emotional punch.

Rating: 5/5

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders appears, on first glance, to be a standard piece of historical fiction geared toward women.  It features a strong heroine.  It spends a lot of its time dealing with tasks that are traditionally considered to be those of women: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, tending to the sick.  There’s some romance.  There’s the always-popular witch hunt when people become ill.  Yet to dismiss this book as simply another piece of historical fiction is to miss the extraordinary storytelling Brooks displays here.

Year of Wonders tells the story of a small English mining town beset by plague.  Anna Frith, our heroine, is a young wife and mother who escaped an abusive childhood home to find a short amount of happiness with Sam before her husband is killed in a mining accident, leaving her with two young boys.  She later takes in a lodger to make ends meet, who turns out to be carrying the plague.  Soon, her boys are both gone, and the village is taken in a wave of disease no one can stop.  The village, spurred by their minister, Michael Mompellion, takes the drastic step of sealing themselves off from the world, to avoid the spread of the disease.

A pretty standard story, after all.  I’ve heard it told before.  What makes Year of Wonders unique in a crowded field is Brooks’ gift for character development.  Anna is a full-rounded person, with a quickness of mind and a caring heart.  Yet she also takes some questionable actions, such as allowing her father to suffer when he is convicted of stealing from an ill man.  In other words, she’s human.  It’s interesting to be in her head and to see the events in the village unfold before her eyes.

Many of the other female characters are the same way.  Anys, the town’s younger healing woman, is brusque, yet, through her actions, Brooks indicates that she cares about the people she treats.  Elinor Mompellion, Michael Mompellion’s wife, is mild and gentle, but not without her secrets.  Brooks excels at showing us women in their entirety, which is better than most writers can manage.

Brooks’ word choice and description is wonderful, as well.  Her writing has a tone that is approachable, for the most part, but also contains vocabulary and phrasing that indicate to the reader the book is about a different time and a different place.

My main problem with Year of Wonders is in the development of some of the male characters.  Some fell a little flat.  I suppose they really aren’t the focus of the book, but it would be nice if they were their own people.  The only one I found compelling for a good amount of the book was Mr. Mompellion, but by the end of the book, I had little interest in him.  It’s too bad.  Their actions might have been more interesting if we knew about them as we went along, instead of afterward, like the childhood of Anna’s father, or not at all, such as her dead husband, Sam.

On the whole, though, Year of Wonders is a very good historical novel.  It felt well-thought-out, smooth, and realistic.  Those three things go quite a ways to making a book a worthy read, which this definitely is.

Rating: 4/5

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The Council of Dads by Bruce Feiler

Disease is a scary thing.  It can disturb an entire life’s worth of planning in a frighteningly short amount of time.  It has the power to separate people from those they love most.  It can make the most mundane of actions impossible to perform.  Bruce Feiler, finding himself seriously ill, made the decision to not allow his cancer to sever all ties with his daughters.  He documents his steps to make this happen, and it’s a good thing he did.

If nothing else, I can confidently say Bruce Feiler has good people in his life, most likely because he himself is a good person.  He is lucky enough to have six men he feels would be able to stand in for him and provide guidance for his daughters.  These are also men who come to provide for him — they visit while he’s sick, they talk to him frankly about how they would help his daughters in their times of need.  This book is a tribute to male friendships, and I found it very interesting to read for that aspect alone.

But this is also a story about how the past shapes the present.  Feiler’s own father and grandfathers have interesting stories that reflect how they ended up parenting.  His friends’ childhoods altered how those men think of parenting, friendship, and life.  Even Feiler’s disease can’t escape connections with history– his cancer-affected leg is the same one that he shattered as a child when he was hit by a car.

His story is touching, but I had a couple of issues with the structure of the book.  There are two narratives winding themselves through this book:  the standard parts that focus on telling the reader about one of the dads, or about Feiler’s back-story, or about meeting his wife.  The other is made up of letters:  one he wrote to the dads, one he wrote to his daughters, and several he wrote during the course of his illness to friends and family.  The two don’t feel smoothly-joined to me.  There are points where the reader hears about certain aspects a couple of different times, which I don’t particularly like.  I would rather not have the everyday events semi-sequestered in the newsletters, seeing as the rest of the book also contains a good amount of the everyday.

I also can’t help but think that Feiler could do with a little more candor.  It was a bit exhausting reading about all the positivity in his life, with very little shown of the more realistic moods of anyone, the children included.  We hear about his crying and the occasionally-off behavior of the twins, but most of it feels glossed over in order to portray everyone involved in the best light possible.  Having been seriously ill myself, some of the coping narrative doesn’t resonate with my own experiences.  It could be that we’re just different people, but I think that he is purposely holding back on the bad times for some reason.  Whether that is to avoid appearing weak, or to protect his children, or for some other reason, I don’t know.

I like his message.  I really like the non-letter parts of the book.  I’m glad that he is doing well, and that he decided to share his story.  I’m hoping he’ll write something else about his daughters, something in which they are all healthy and don’t have to worry about getting the marrow out of the moment.  I suspect they’re pretty good at doing that without trying.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Critical Care by Theresa Brown

No matter how many medical memoirs I read, I never seem to get enough.  The best ones, I’ve found, lead me to a new understanding of how we, as biological creatures and thinking beings both, function.  They bring me into a realization about myself and others that would not have otherwise occurred to me.  I think this is a gift that this particular genre can give more easily than most other forms of nonfiction.  Theresa Brown’s entry into the field, Critical Care, is a competent work written about the in-hospital training of the author as a nurse.

In her book, Brown discusses some of the standard concerns of a new nurse:  feeling inadequately trained for some of the situations that arise; facing the strict chain of command that structures every hospital; dealing with horrible time constraints and unreasonable work loads; and learning to balance personal life.

Brown writes on these topics with an open hand, allowing the reader to easily grasp what is being said.  She has a gift for making the reader understand what, exactly, is going on with a particular treatment or procedure, and is able to make most situations fairly approachable.  I suspect this is because she has a background as an English professor, and has the technical skill to use language in a very effective way.  In fact, I think her idiosyncratic career history makes her story more compelling — it’s quite the career change to go from being in front of a classroom to being in a hospital room, hanging an IV.

She takes a look at some interesting topics, such as injuring her knee after becoming a nurse and viewing the role of patient from within, rather than without.  In fact, the book is full of fascinating stories about patients, the learning process, and on keeping one’s humanity while working with those who are ill.  It takes a while to realize that even those people Brown discusses as having gone into remission are more likely than not either dead or experiencing relapses.  How hard that must be for their caregivers, both past and present, to handle.

The stories she tells about her experiences and the people she has known and taken care of are not, however, ultimately satisfying.  The main reason for this is that she doesn’t manage to provide a feeling of depth to the lessons she attempts to impart.  Her anecdotes and recalled stories all have an underlying message of some sort or another, but are lacking the aspect of new insight.  The things she tries to teach feel as if they have been discussed before and been discussed better; she has nothing to add to the conversation that is special or innovative.

This is sad, because I think, with a little more encouragement, Critical Care could go from being a mediocre nurse’s memoir to being a work of incredible power.  Brown works with oncology patients, and, from what she has written here, she has had many powerful experiences.  She just needs to be able to focus on creating tight narratives that can stand on their own, without the explanation of what should be gleaned from the story she feels compelled to include.

Rating:  3/5.

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