Blessings and Sudden Intimacies by Greg Stidham, MD

Blessings and Sudden Intimacies by Greg Stidham MD.png

Blessings and Sudden Intimacies: Musings of a Pediatric Intensivist, a 2016 memoir by Greg Stidham, MD, begins with a “sudden intimacy,” an encounter with a parent whose son has just died.  The boy’s mother, after asking Dr. Stidham's permission, takes hold of and strokes his beard, an emblem of his sense of self.   

It's that kind of startling detail, one remembered and deeply felt, that stands out in this medical memoir. In many ways, the author followed the normal trajectory of a clinician's path: After growing  up in Cleveland, and excelling in school, Dr. Stidham attended Notre Dame and the Medical College of Ohio.  In the 1970s, he was a fellow at Johns Hopkins, which had one of five Pediatric Critical Care training programs in the country.  What starts to emerge in the narrative is Dr. Stidham's heightened sense of purpose: He went on to establish a pediatric palliative care program, the first in the region, at LeBonheur Children’s Medical Center hospital in Memphis, where he spent twenty-eight years of his career.

Encounters with critically ill and dying children and their parents present the poignant “sudden intimacies” of the book.  The “blessings” of the title refer to the young patients, families and healthcare personnel who touch him.  But they are also more broadly defined, as when Dr. Stidham writes about his early career, that “without that training and the opportunity to gain [pediatric critical care] expertise I would not have had the adventures that blessed the rest of my life.”  The book is just as much about his personal as his professional life, and he says the two are “inextricably intertwined.”  This is reflected in the structure of the book, which moves around in time and ranges wide geographically.  We are taken on hiking trips to Colorado, camping trips in Arkansas, to Nicaragua where he helped set up a pediatric cardiac surgery program, and to Kingston, Ontario where he moved late in his career.

Dr. Stidham frankly relates his own marital and health problems, numerous enough to raise the question of how much his personal life suffered from the professional toll of long hours, nights on-call, and the emotional strain of dealing with dying children and their families, a potential conflict he doesn’t address directly.  Instead he conveys his belief that life is extraordinary, and that he has done unusual and extraordinary things with his.  He maintains an optimistic world view, a mindset that gives him the empathy and strength needed to sustain a long medical career.

Dr. Greg Stidham

Dr. Greg Stidham

Blessings and Sudden Intimacies makes you think about what you’ve done with your life, yet somehow Dr. Stidham leaves you feeling that whatever you’ve done, it’s enough.  He writes with disarming charm:  “Every life is rich in its own unique way, and deserves commemoration.  Perhaps it is, in part, for those others that I write, for their rich, but otherwise uncommemorated lives.”  He certainly conveys the richness of his own.—Priscilla Mainardi


PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University.  Her work appears in numerous journals, most recently The Examined Life Journal and Prick of the Spindle.  She teaches English Composition at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey.  Her short story “Pretending Not to Know” appeared in the Spring 2014 Intima.  She joined the editorial board of the Intima in 2015.

Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

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In Hugh Aldersey-Williams' Anatomies:  A Cultural History of the Human Body (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), he poses a quasi-cultural, and intentionally un-anatomical, rationale for his constant middle of the night urination troubles: he’s getting old. The book does not offer a detailed glimpse into any specific disease, nor does it follow any individual navigating through a disease process. However, Anatomies allows the reader, regardless of training or background, to enjoy humorous anecdotes that explain how our cultural interpretations of our bodies, and what disease can do to them, have been shaped for centuries.  

Aldersey-Williams makes known his disdain for doctors’ predilection to use overly obtuse medical definitions for body parts, like saying coxa for hip.  He flexes his wit and knowledge on some of the most complex of organs while seamlessly jumping from micro to macro levels of anatomical and cultural understanding.

While tackling the larger questions that researchers continue to disagree upon, such as what constitutes an organ, the author also poses questions mystifying and ridiculous in equal parts, asking how we join many other species in the act of grooming yet we are unique in our development of hairstyles. He allows you to draw from the experiences he has accumulated as a field researcher as he reports drawing limbs and organs from the formaldehyde confines of an anatomy lab, to sketches of live subjects, and onto the assessment of dancers’, and our own, physical limits. 

The book, much like a textbook sitting on the edge of a cadaver tank in the anatomy lab, is broken up by region and body part. When read through continuously, this layout can prove to be a little disjointed, but the separation of topics allows for a seamless re-entry into the text after prolonged periods of interruption. Anatomies will hardly provide direct insight into any one area, but opens avenues of thought into how we perceive ourselves, each other, and the most famous around us.— Salvatore Aiello 


Salvatore Aiello M.S. is a medical student at Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University. After graduating from University of Michigan, he found that his minor in writing had the most lasting utility in both his academic and creative pursuits. Salvatore has several scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals and has contributed to the blog, In-Training. Beyond his coursework and writing, he is described as the Benevolent-Overlord of the Medical Humanities Club where he works with his colleagues to promotes resiliency in physicians and all healthcare professionals.

The Bright Hour: A Memoir about Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

 “Nothing so concentrates experience and clarifies the central conditions of living as serious illness,” wrote Harvard psychiatrist Arthur Kleinman, and nowhere is that idea more evident than in a new memoir entitled, The Bright Hour:  A Memoir of Living and Dying (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Nina Riggs.

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Barriers and Belongings: Personal Narratives of Disabilities, Edited by Michelle Jarman, Leila Monaghan, and Alison Quaggin Harkin

An Iraq veteran fighting the “quiet conflict” of PTSD, a woman with memory loss who hides her disability as well as her misery, a man whose traumatic brain injury helps him make sense ofhis brother’s disability.  These are a few of the many voices we learn from in Barriers and Belongings.

At first glance, the book is a disabilities studies textbook with an introduction and chapter openings that provide background on social and cultural approaches to disability, as well as useful definitions.  But Barriers and Belongings is much more than a textbook:  it’s an eye-opening collection of lives, told with honesty and moving candor.  The narratives, which are organized into sections around themes such as communication, family and relationships, are engaging and short, allowing room for many different points of view.  Most are written from the perspective of early adulthood, reflecting back on growing up, which gives them an appealing coming-of-age quality.  The writers lead us up to the moment their conception of their disability changes in some way.  The ways are as varied as the disabilities themselves, which range from acquired conditions such as PTSD and chronic pain, to congenital conditions such as cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome, to mental health and cognitive conditions.  Because of these many viewpoints, one writer identifies the need for “people with diverse disabilities [to] recognize our common struggle” in order for the disability movement to reach its “full potential to change society.”

For the book is as much about the larger society as it is about the individual stories.  Most of the writers see disability not as a problem to be solved but as an integral part of themselves, and want to reframe disability from a nonsocial and nonmedical perspective.  As one writer puts it, “I wonder how the world would be if everyone realized that normal didn’t exist, and that trying to achieve normalcy was futile.  What if disability didn’t always need a cure?  What if everyone equated disability with difference, not deficiency?”  Or as another writes:  “Sometimes, abnormal is normal.”


PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University.  Her work appears in numerous journals, most recently The Examined Life Journal and Prick of the Spindle.  She teaches English Composition at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey.  Her short story “Pretending Not to Know” appeared in the Spring 2014 Intima.

 

A Short Life by Jim Slotnick

No work better embraces narrative medicine than A Short Life, by Jim Slotnick. This prescient memoir, written in 1983 and published in 2014, narrates a young medical student’s terminal illness from pre-diagnosis to his final days. It is a song of life’s joys, deadly shortcuts in medical practice, the necessity of listening and paying attention, and the essential value of compassion. 

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The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir by Marcia Butler

The Skin Above My Knee by Marcia Butler

When was the last time you really, truly listened to music? In the rush-rush of daily life, it's not always easy to sit, close your eyes and listen—deeply, emotionally, exclusively—to, say, a Mendelssohn Violin Concerto or "Naima" by John Coltrane or even Adele's achingly nostalgic love song, "Hello." Instead, we OM at a meditation class, zone out watching "The Crown" or "Black Mirror," or catch up on the latest Intima Field Notes (sorry, a bit of shameless self promotion) to de-stress from our chaotic lives. We often forget the restorative, soul-enhancing powers of music, the way we can lose ourselves and discover other worlds and emotional depths when we focus and attentively listen.

During her 25-year musical career, Marcia Butler performed as principal oboist and soloist on renowned New York and international stages, with many musicians and orchestras, includin pianist Andre Watts, composer and pianist Keith Jarrett, and soprano Dawn Upshaw.

During her 25-year musical career, Marcia Butler performed as principal oboist and soloist on renowned New York and international stages, with many musicians and orchestras, includin pianist Andre Watts, composer and pianist Keith Jarrett, and soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Those feelings came rushing back to me as I read a new memoir by Marcia Butler, entitled The Skin Above My Knee. Butler, who published a story called "Cancer Diva," in the Spring 2015 Intima, was a classical oboist in New York City for 25 years. She has written an extraordinary and moving account of her life that goes beyond stories about her difficult childhood, icy and aloof mother, the many abusive men in her life and her struggles with addiction. Yes, we get all of those painful stories, fleshed out and delivered with Butler's sensitive, yet sardonic wit, but we also are party to her love and mastery of music.

Oh, glorious music! Every other chapter or so, Butler brings her musical world to life in palpable detail, pulsing with all of its highs, lows and endless hours of practice. We see her pride and excitement about being accepted to a music conservatory on full scholarship only to be told to play nothing but long tones "for months, possibly till the end of the semester." We watch, as she learns the "hell" of crafting the perfect reed from scratch only to ruin it and start all over again. We accompany her through the nerve-wracking challenges and transcendental joys of performing. 

Consider this short excerpt where she describes accepting an invitation from composer Elliott Carter to be the first American to perform his oboe concerto:

Upon receiving the score, you can't play the piece or even do a cursory read-through. This is an understatement. You can't play a single bar at tempo or, in must cases, even three consecutive notes. You have to figure out how to cut into this massive behemoth. First learn the notes. Forget about making music at this point. Just learn the damn notes. Your practice sessions consist of setting the metronome at an unspeakably slow tempo and then playing one bar over and over until you can go one notch faster.....

...You remember the exact passage when the cogs lock together. It is not even the hardest section, technically, but what you begin to hear is music. There's music in there, and it is actually you making that music. Your stomach rolls over, a love swoon. The physical sensation is visceral and distinct. It is a very private knowing: a merging with something divine, precious, and rare. As a musician, you covet those moments. You live and play for them. It is a truly deep connection with the composer, as if you channel his inner life. A tender synergy is present, and you fear that to even speak about it will dissipate it immediately. Don't talk. Just be aware.

We're fortunate that Butler has decided to talk about her intense love affair with music and share her most intimate moments with us in this entertaining memoir. While the author touches upon her cancer diagnosis briefly, this isn't an illness narrative in any way, shape or form. Yet, she brings the idea of attentiveness and deep focus to light through her musical calling and finds a way to counteract trauma and pain in the expression of her art. By opening up the conversation about difficult moments and learning the discipline to recognize, express and find meaning in them, Butler also reminds us to listen, deeply, to the music of the world around us, as dissonant, lilting, strident or soothing it might be. Find the music that personally delivers meaning to you, be it a concerto or Ed Sheeran, "Shape of You." For her, it was always Norwegian opera singer Kirsten Flagstad performing Isolde's final aria, the "Liebestod," in Richard Wagner's magnificent Tristan and Isolde.—Donna Bulseco

If you would like to hear Marcia Butler in concert, the author provided a link to work where she performed. Click on the title of a piece for oboe and piano, entitled "Fancy Footwork" from the album, "On the Tip of My Tongue" by composer Eric Moe.


DONNA BULSECO, M.A., M.S., is a graduate of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University. After getting her B.A. at UCLA in creative writing and American poetry, the L.A. native studied English literature at Brown University for a Master's degree, then moved to New York City. She has been an editor and journalist for the past 25 years at publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Women's Wear Daily, W, Self, and InStyle, and has written articles for Health, More and the New York Times. She is Managing Editor of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, as well as a teaching associate at the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University.

Avalanche

Julia Leigh’s Avalanche, a story of the writer’s devastating desire and struggle to conceive a child, is a slender memoir. However, the pages are richly packed with the details of her private hell as she spirals through cycle after cycle of in vitro fertilization. The challenge of reading this book, though, is a worthwhile one.  It is difficult to witness someone’s pain so intensely, but it is also an honor.

What Leigh exposes in her writing isn’t just the inner workings of our infertility zeitgeist, with all of its statistics, though the numbers are bleaker than the media would generally have us believe.  She makes tangible the emotional and psychological turmoil that those numbers create in patients who will cling to any sign of hope.  “In the last year, what percentage of women my age at the clinic had taken home a baby using their own eggs?” she asks.  “[The doctor’s] answer: 2.8 percent for 44-year-olds, 6.6 percent for 43-year-olds…What to do?  What to do?  Where does this stop?” 

 The heart of this book beats with raw honesty. Leigh’s acknowledgement, for instance, of putting her career before her desire to start a family: “I also said—it pains me now—that I needed to safeguard ‘my hard-won creative life.’  Why was I so quick to add any sort of caveat? Why did I set the two ways of being—motherhood, writing—at odds?” And of course, the sad, perhaps humiliating reckoning with the biological reality of her age: “When I reported back to my sister she frowned and said… ‘I hate to say it but the main thing is the age of your eggs so any extra hope is marginal.’”

 Avalanche is not a traditional a memoir filled with scenes and stories.   Leigh isn’t concerned with writing workshop rhetoric here, which means less time spent on the areas where most writers are told to focus: developing characters and settings and showing not telling.  She’s concerned with telling her truth. Her story is internal, psychological.  Of course there are external factors—her marriage and divorce, her career—but ultimately, the story moves away from these forces and becomes an all-consuming individual quest.  Less a book, more an extended essay of sorts, Avalanche isn’t divided into chapters.  It reads like a wistful film, perhaps a result of Leigh’s experience in script-writing, and it feels intentionally written to be read and digested in one sitting. 

The prevalence of fertility treatments in our world deems this book timely, but at its core, this is not a story of fad medical treatments or the contemporary female plight.  “What I try to hold onto,” she writes at the end of her journey, “is a commitment to love widely and intensely.  Tenderly.  In ways I would not have previously expected…After the avalanche, the bare face of the mountain.  Under the sun and the moon.”  Leigh’s story, while deeply personal and specific, strikes a far more universal chord: the desire to love, and to be loved, unconditionally; to find beauty and satisfaction in unexpected places; and to gracefully accept our individual narratives, even if they don’t play out the way we hoped or imagined them. —Holly Schechter


HOLLY SCHECHTER teaches English and Writing at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. She graduated from McGill University with a degree in English Literature, and holds an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is active at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where she received excellent care as a patient, and in turn serves on the Friends of Mount Sinai Board and fundraises for spine research. Her piece "Genealogy" appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.

 

 

 

The Heart

The Heart by French writer Maylis De Kerangal is exactly what it says it is: a dive into the multitude of lives that surround an organ donation. Unflinching and stark, this novel takes its readers into every crevice of the process of donation. We travel down each vein, into the inner depths of the many lives that will be changed by this experience.

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De Kerangal’s novel is clear in its support of organ donation, but simultaneously opposes our culture’s narrative of this procedure. Rather than showing the miracle of a donation, the readers are first shown the torturous decision-making process. We see the protagonist, Simon, in his brutal accident. We are shown another character, Thomas Remige, as he confronts his role as a clinician—he must be compassionate, yet objective, and convince the family without any form of persuasion. Time bends as we follow Thomas’s storyline. We are shown the exacting time limitations for the immediate needs of others, but also the necessary, deliberate slowing of time for the grieving family. While the benefits and decisions about the organ’s next move are instantaneous, the family’s time almost stops completely. Thomas is acutely aware of the memories that will be associated with the decision and the months and years that will impact the family’s choices, and he has no intention of making the family feel coerced into donating Simon’s organs through a rushed conversation.

In this way, De Kerangal’s depiction of the family perspective is brutally honest and open in every form. However, the family’s journey to making this crucial decision about donation respectfully encompasses their grief and their need for a simultaneous closure and continuation of life. We see the way their family is sewn together through the wreckage of tragedy. Not only does De Kerangal describe the emotional effects of organ donation, but she also brings a level of clarity to the physical act of harvesting organs.

Maylis De Kerangal

Maylis De Kerangal

That kind of examination allows the reader to shift from one space to another almost seamlessly, from the slow, muddled process of a family grieving and Thomas’s instantaneous and urgent messaging to the factual, the sterile, and the professional removal process. Combining these opposing attitudes and realities about organ donation immerses the reader into this messy and irreverent space. She has captured the essence of humanity and of the continuation of life within the death of this young man.

 In the end, the author moves the reader poetically and seamlessly into a new space—one of sacred mourning that once again underscores the sacrifice. The author completely turns the ancient practice of heart-burial on its head, revealing a modernized perspective that simultaneously saves lives and gives the highest respect to the dead. Rather than keeping the heart separately interred in a place of worship, the heart is now "interred" in the most sacred space it can be given: another person's body. The heart’s consciousness and soul are symbolically kept safe and "live on" and in this way, De Kerangal takes a practice that may seem unnatural to some and puts it in line with revered practices, reserved only for kings and poets.

The Heart is a perspective-changing experience. De Kerangal transports us to the depths of grief, situating us elbow deep in the bloody body of a teenager, and then brings us up to the stars, to the heavens, and ultimately to the frailty and beauty of life and death--Katelyn Connor


Katelyn Connor is a National Sales Associate at Penguin Random House. She completed her degree in Narrative Medicine in May, 2016.

Catching Homelessness

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When I read Josephine Ensign’s piece in this spring’s Intima and saw she had a novel coming out soon, I immediately wanted to read it.  The book, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse's Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, published this year by She Writes Press, doesn’t disappoint.  Ms. Ensign brings her masterful crisp prose and extensive experience as a family nurse practitioner, writer and teacher to the issue of homelessness, and offers an engaging, informative and moving memoir.

Catching Homelessness begins with Ms. Ensign’s childhood growing up at a camp near a Civil War battlefield, “a landscape of ghosts and half-buried violence, covered in violets, punctuated by deep, abandoned wells.”  But the memoir’s main focus is Richmond, Virginia in the 1980’s, when Ms. Ensign was a newly minted nurse practitioner running a health clinic out of a homeless shelter.  Her perspective of the homeless changes from her initial view of them as “exotic, impoverished, foreign-to-us people,” to real people with real problems:  Lee, “dressed in several layers of hospital gowns, with the vulnerable air that clings to them,” who when dying of AIDS names Ms. Ensign as his next of kin; schizophrenic Louie, covered in head lice; pregnant Sallie with an IQ of 45.  Ms. Ensign changes our view too, reaching us on an emotional level with these and other precisely drawn characters.  We pick up a lot of knowledge along the way, not just about homelessness but also about the origin of the nurse practitioner role, the geography of Richmond and the lingering effects of its history.  We learn to empathize with the people drawn to serving the homeless.  

Josephine Ensign

Josephine Ensign

    As a young new nurse at the Richmond clinic, Ms. Ensign recalls, “I still wasn’t sure how far I’d go, what I’d risk catching in the name of compassion or health care duty.”  Run-ins with Richmond’s male-dominated medical establishment, disillusionment with her Evangelical Christian upbringing, and a failing marriage lead to Ms. Ensign’s own homeless crisis, an experience which enables her to bring a unique perspective to the issue.  By the end of the book, you feel you’ve read a good story and learned a lot too.  And you’re sure to take the advice she offers in the book’s comprehensive appendix, and respond to the next homeless person you meet with a smile and a kind word. -- Priscilla Mainardi


PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University.  Her work appears in numerous journals, most recently Blue Moon Literary and Art Review and The Examined Life Journal.  She teaches English Composition at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey.  Her short story “Pretending Not to Know” appeared in the Spring 2014 Intima.

 

 

Poetry In Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness and Healing. Edited by Michael Salcman

For more information about Poetry in Medicine by Michael Salcman, go to http://www.perseabooks.com/detail.php?bookID=115

For more information about Poetry in Medicine by Michael Salcman, go to http://www.perseabooks.com/detail.php?bookID=115

If the doctors cure

then the sun sees it.

If the doctors kill,

then the earth hides it.

—from "Doctors" by Anne Sexton

 

Most of us would not be surprised to learn Anne Sexton had written a poem entitled "Doctors." The confessional poet, who was raised in Weston, MA., was institutionalized throughout her life and often under medical care for depression. But many of us in the medical humanities might be stunned at just how many poets have addressed issues in medicine, as we discover in Poetry In Medicine, an in-depth, beautifully-conceived collection edited by poet and neurosurgeon Michael Salcman.

What makes this collection a pleasure to read—either from the inspiring foreward by poet Michael Collier to the index of poets at the end, or by dipping in and out of its treasures in a random fashion—is that Dr. Salcman has organized it in the most ingenious ways: There are chapters entitled, "The Wisdom of the Body: Anatomy & Physiology," "Contagions, Infections & Fevers," "From The Children's Ward," and "Looking Inside: Procedures, Surgical & Diagnostic." There are also simpler categories, like "Patients" and "Doctors and Other Healers." Work by Shakespeare, Ovid, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ogden Nash, W.B. Yeats, William Wordsworth, e.e. cummings, Elizabeth Bishop and dozens more populate the pages. Each of these writers have written poems that celebrate, anoint, critique, embrace, love or hate doctors, illness, suffering, medicine and healthcare.

Michael Salcman, photo graphed here at a reading in November 2015 at the Columbia University Medical Center to celebrate the literary & fine arts journal, Reflexions, is a poet, neurosurgeon, and art historian, formerly chair of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. He is the author of six medical textbooks and six collections of verse, including The Clock Made of Confetti and The Enemy of Good Is Better.  Dr. Salcman reads the poem, "The Clock Made of Confetti" below.

Michael Salcman, photo graphed here at a reading in November 2015 at the Columbia University Medical Center to celebrate the literary & fine arts journal, Reflexions, is a poet, neurosurgeon, and art historian, formerly chair of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland and president of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. He is the author of six medical textbooks and six collections of verse, including The Clock Made of Confetti and The Enemy of Good Is Better.  Dr. Salcman reads the poem, "The Clock Made of Confetti" below.

There is Thomas Hardy's "A Wasted Illness," Walt Whitman's "The Wound Dresser" and C. P. Cavafy's "The Bandaged Shoulder" alongside Kate Kimball's "Transfusion" and my particular favorite, "Night Thoughts Over A Sick Child," by Philip Levine, which brought back memories of caring for my feverish son on a long, lonely midnight vigil. We are given topics as specific as "Colonoscopy Sonnet" by Sandra M. Gilbert about a medical procedure being done on the leader of the free world ("On the news tonight, a presidential/colonoscopy...") to more philosophical musings about death from Yeats in "A Friend's Illness":

Sickness brought me this

Thought, in that scale of his:

Why should I be dismayed

Though flame had burned the whole

World, as it were a coal,

Now I have seen it weighed

Against a soul?

Poetry in Medicine achieves many things, the primary one being a pleasurable read for anyone interested in literature. What seems additionally relevant for those involved in healthcare or teaching Narrative Medicine is the tremendous cache of writing Dr. Salcman has amassed that provides us with rich material— for study, for inspiration and for reflection and response.—Donna Bulseco





Scars: An Anthology. Edited by Erin Wood

For more on this book, go to www.etaliapress.com

For more on this book, go to www.etaliapress.com

For some two years, Erin Wood spent her time examining scars. As careful and probing as a surgeon, the writer and editor of Scars: An Anthology examined a wealth of poems, photographs, and prose about the subject and handled each person's revealing narrative with the emerging understanding that "there is a great deal about our scars that extends far beyond the individual body and the self."

Wood, whose essay "We Scar, We Heal, We Rise" was a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2013 (it appears in this volume) reflects on the ways scars may "belong to different versions of ourselves: our past selves...or new selves, selves in transition, or even selves we wish to regard more fully."

Stories that address these issues make the collection a rich reading experience that at times can be intense and painful, but also enlightening and entertaining. There is a lot of humor alongside the humanity that's revealed, as well as insight into the clinical encounter, most notably in Sayantani DasGupta's "'Tell Me About Your Scar': Narrative Medicine and The Scars of Intelligibility." One of the most moving and insightful pieces in the collection is "The Women's Table," an interview with Andrea Zekis, who speaks frankly about her "gender confirmation surgery" and the scars, emotional and physical, created but also taken away during her transition. A photo essay by New York photographer David Jay, who began The SCAR Project, is a stunning look at those who show their scars frankly and with pride. And while many of the pieces in this book are personal essays and memoirs, it is the poetry— like Samantha Plakun's "Written In Stitches" and Philip Martin's "The Pry Bar"—that draws the reader in close to examine the beauty and personal history revealed in the body's terrain.—Donna Bulseco

On December 10,2015, Columbia University's Seminar on Narrative, Health and Social Justice presented "Scars as Art, Text and Experience" at the Faculty House, featuring Editor Erin Wood and contributors Kelli Dunham, Lorrie Fredette, Samantha Plakun, and Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes. Marsha Hurst, who is a lecturer in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University and co-chairs the University Seminar on "Narrative, Health, and Social Justice" introduced the panel. Hurst is co-editor with Sayantani DasGupta of Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies. Listen to the event in its entirety below:


Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon's Odyssey by Bud Shaw, M.D.

lastnightintheOR

There’s a revelation that comes about halfway through Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon’s Odyssey by Bud Shaw, M.D. The title leads you to believe you’ll be reading a medical memoir, a genre that has drawn a lot of attention recently with fine books by Henry Marsh (Do No Harm) and Atul Gawande (Being Mortal). Dr. Shaw’s new book traces his evolution from an impressionable 31-year-old surgical resident in Utah through his years of training in what was then the relatively new field of liver transplantation, as well as other significant life events—marrying, divorcing, being fired, undergoing treatment for lymphoma, and getting older and shifting into a new life as a writer. Along the way, we meet the kind of characters you might encounter in a novel: Renowned transplant surgeon Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, one of the most ornery, foul-mouthed, caustic human beings you’d never want to entrust your life to—except for the fact that he was brilliant, fearless and demanded the best out of his team: the taciturn and efficient Dr. Shun Iwatsuki, Dr. Hong from Shanghai (dubbed the Human Retractor for his skill at retracting a patient’s rib cage out of Dr. Starzl’s way), Dr. Carlos Fernandez-Bueno, and Shaw. We meet many patients, in chapters with titles like “Janie and the Giant Abscess,” “Death 5, Mrs. Rothstein l” and “Burned Yolanda.” Shaw’s father, also a doctor, is a major presence, and the emotional thru-line of a father-son relationship complicated by a shared vocation is finely drawn.

Author Bud Shaw, M.D. The father of three adult children, Shaw lives with his wife, novelist Rebecca Rotert (Shaw), in the wooded hills north of Omaha, Nebraska. Check back in January for an interview with Dr. Shaw on Intima.

Author Bud Shaw, M.D. The father of three adult children, Shaw lives with his wife, novelist Rebecca Rotert (Shaw), in the wooded hills north of Omaha, Nebraska.

Check back in January for an interview with Dr. Shaw on Intima.

So here is the revelation: Medical humanities has found its Raymond Carver. Dr. Shaw’s writing is a true departure from the other brilliant books in this genre because of the distinctive way he tells his stories. His writing is taut, spare and direct, but also gracefully nuanced. We feel we’re getting a factual accounting of events, but also the bigger, more symbolic picture of a time and place and the lives within it. There is a visceral recognition of the physical and psychological toll exacted on physicians and the real fears associated with a job that deals with life and death on a daily basis. Yet, thankfully, the writing never succumbs to sentimentality or philosophizing. Like Carver, Dr. Shaw lays out the Big Issues by making the little worlds we live in alive and real on the page.

Here’s how the chapter “Good Opera” begins:

On the table lay a man from Kansas. He had a wife, two daughters under five, and a bad liver. He had a belly full of fluid, skin glowing like a pumpkin, and a nest of veins like snakes between my knife and his liver.

I looked into the eyes of four surgeons scrubbed and waiting to help me. Shun was in the lounge smoking. He’d helped me do dozens of transplants by then and he figured I’d call for him if I got into trouble. Hong, the Human Retractor, grinned at me. I asked for the knife and we began.

As with any medical memoir, expect a few squeamish moments (that is, if you’re not a clinician used to talk about fluids, blood, diseases, etc.). Expect, also, to be moved by a doctor’s tales, expressed succinctly and with great depth and feeling.—Donna Bulseco


DONNA BULSECO, M.A., M.S., is a graduate of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University and Managing Editor of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. After doing undergraduate work at UCLA in creative writing and American poetry, the L.A. native studied American Gothic and English at Brown University, then moved to New York City in the late seventies. She has been an editor and journalist for the past 25 years at publications such as Women's Wear Daily, W, Self, and InStyle, and has written articles for Health, More, Redbook, and the New York Times.