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All Medicine Coverage

As we age, most of us will experience a debilitating or life-threatening illness at some point. Two nonfiction books take an unflinching look at this reality while painting a compassionate picture of how we and our health care providers could approach illness and death with more empathy, honesty and courage.

Healing

Cover of Healing by Theresa Brown

Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient is Theresa Brown’s searingly honest and deeply personal account of her experiences as a breast cancer patient. Brown, a registered nurse with a Ph.D. in English literature, has written and lectured extensively about the American health care system. As a former oncology and hospice nurse, Brown knew that patients often got a raw deal, but only after her own diagnosis did she realize how needlessly cruel that deal could be.

Brown has profound gratitude for her family, friends and medical team, who all supported her as she recovered, but she is also angry. She faced a host of necessary evils during her treatment, including invasive diagnostic procedures, painful surgeries and debilitating side effects from chemotherapy. But in a series of devastating vignettes, Brown also details the many unnecessary evils she endured in a system that favors profit over the needs of the patient: Diagnoses were delayed, questions left unanswered, test results undelivered. She was even forced to negotiate byzantine regulations on her own because her health care providers were stretched too thin to ensure that these basic duties were fulfilled effectively or graciously. Even though Brown was a seasoned health professional with extensive knowledge and professional contacts, she had to fight to be treated humanely. One can only imagine the obstacles less experienced patients must face every day.

Healing is both a moving memoir and a clarion call to action. When health care becomes a profit-making industry, dominated by hedge funds and corporate interests, we all lose. Instead, Brown argues, we must return to a system where meeting the patient’s needs—physical, emotional and social—is the priority.

The Day I Die

Cover of The Day I Die by Anita Hannig

In The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America, anthropologist Anita Hannig takes a different but no less passionate approach to her examination of death and dying in America. After becoming interested in how Oregon’s assisted dying law worked, Hannig embedded herself in a volunteer group that helps terminally ill patients take advantage of the law. She soon realized that the law, with its many hoops and barriers, could be like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s girl with the curl on her forehead. When it works, the law is very good. Hannig’s case studies of patients who have enough luck and resources to meet the demands of the statute demonstrate that assisted death can be, paradoxically, life-affirming. Autonomy can be restored to patients who have long been at the mercy of their diseases, and knowing when one will die can be an opportunity for reconciliation, reunion and gratitude.

But when things go bad, the law can be horrid. It is reasonable to have strict conditions surrounding assisted dying to ensure that the decision to end one’s life is freely made. But those conditions can have devastating effects upon patients who desperately want to die but cannot meet the requirements. Patients with ALS, for example, might lose their ability to communicate their assent before the deadline. Advanced Alzheimer’s patients are categorically denied access to assisted dying because they have lost the ability to fully understand their decision. Hannig rigorously details these and other situations in which people’s physical or mental deterioration, lack of resources or sheer bad luck result in a painfully prolonged life and terrifying death.

In her introduction, Hannig acknowledges the anthropologist’s dilemma: The act of observation is an imperfect tool for research, since it can change both the observer and the observed. However, it can also change the reader, since it is impossible to read Hannig’s book without being moved. Regardless of your stance on assisted dying, The Day I Die will make you reconsider how dying could and should be.

The personal stories in these nonfiction books set a more humane benchmark for patients and providers.

In her early 20s, Meghan O’Rourke began to experience an array of symptoms—fatigue, joint pain, brain fog, hives, fever, a sensation of electric shocks along her legs and arms—that neither doctors nor bloodwork could connect to a diagnosis. When one doctor suggested that O’Rourke might have an autoimmune disease, a condition in which the immune system begins to turn on the body, O’Rourke recalled her practical Irish aunts who lived with rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s disease and ulcerative colitis, all autoimmune diseases. As O’Rourke entered her 30s, her symptoms grew worse, despite seeing multiple specialists. She found herself barely able to leave her apartment, let alone have the baby she’d been hoping for.

O’Rourke is the author of three collections of poetry and a memoir, The Long Goodbye. In The Invisible Kingdom, she chronicles her long search for healing, layering in extensive reporting on the rise of chronic illness and autoimmune disease and the way our medical system fails to see ailments that aren’t readily diagnosable or easily treated. Likewise, she notes that autoimmune diseases are far more likely to affect women, and women, in turn, are more likely to be told that their symptoms are all in their heads. “Of the nearly one hundred women I interviewed, all of whom were eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or other concrete illness, more than 90 percent had been encouraged to seek treatment for anxiety or depression by doctors who told them nothing physical was wrong with them,” she writes.

O’Rourke examines her own experience with a lucid but compassionate lens, and she brings that same mix of analysis and compassion to the book’s reporting. It’s a delicate balancing act to write about a long journey of misery without being tedious or repetitive. She pulls it off by adding lyrical imagery and the words of other writers, such as Alice James and Susan Sontag, to her descriptions of suffering, the peculiar treatments she found herself undergoing, and the effect her quest for healing had on her marriage. And yes, the book reaches a happy, though not uncomplicated, ending.

While it’s especially useful for those who have personally encountered chronic illness, The Invisible Kingdom will add to everyone’s understanding of disease and health. Ultimately it offers a fresh image of what good medicine could look like: doctors understanding each patient as a whole person, not just as a collection of parts.

With a mix of analysis and compassion, Meghan O’Rourke chronicles the rise of chronic illness and autoimmune disease alongside her own long search for healing.

When I graduated from high school in 2008, the U.S. was plummeting into a financial collapse that tanked the rest of the world’s economy as well. By the time I graduated from college in 2012, the descriptions of most entry-level positions began, “Must have at least five years of relevant experience.” And no one really had any advice about what to do with the massive, overwhelming problem that was and is student debt.

In 2021, as graduates face not only economic hardship but also the pandemics of poverty, racism and COVID-19, good advice is equally hard to find. The past year has taught them that stability is the illusion, while change and upheaval are the norm. Facing an uncertain future means figuring out how to navigate big changes.

In Letter to a Young Female Physician: Notes From a Medical Life, author Suzanne Koven explores her own personal crises and growth, weaving them within the story of her practice as an internist, or doctor of internal medicine. Koven discusses her struggles with image, identity, sexuality and weight and sees these things as inextricably tied to her desire to be someone important: a doctor. Yet, what Koven discovers is that despite succeeding and becoming a doctor, she failed to overcome the impostor syndrome that plagued her even before she held others’ lives in her hands.

In this way, Koven’s story speaks to the impostor in all of us. Koven writes that “even the most blameless patient, the victim of an accident or a random illness in no way related to anything that person did and in no way preventable by them, feels shame.” We’re all victims of senseless suffering—an economic collapse, a pandemic. These shared traumas reveal our shame; but Koven advises us not to ignore or try to defeat it but rather to allow it to shape us into better, more empathetic people.

By contrast, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims falls into the more traditional, practical advice category. With frank, straightforward counsel and to-do list chapter titles, Your Turn gives advice that all of us—adults, young adults and children—need to hear.

Citing the work of bestselling psychology researchers and writers like Lori Gottlieb and Brené Brown, Lythcott-Haims’ book advises young people to take chances and find what makes them happy, rather than following a prescribed path to success. Perhaps the most moving passages are the “don’t just take it from me” stories collected from various friends, acquaintances and pen pals. In a world that feels so isolating, reading these deeply intimate stories reminds us why we long to live in community with one another and how doing so truly helps us survive and thrive.

The greatest takeaway from both of these books isn’t the advice they provide but their acknowledgement that we all need each other. Alone, we’re more susceptible to our own shame and self-doubt. Yet here we are, longing not for some sort of undefinable success but simply to be in each other’s presence again. To be sure, many obstacles still stand in the way of our ideal lives; for example, no one envisions a pandemic as the perfect start to adulthood. But sharing our stories is the first step forward, as these tender, inspiring books make clear.

The greatest takeaway from both of these books for burgeoning adults isn’t the advice but the acknowledgement that we all need each other.

Florence Nightingale and Dorothea Dix loom large as women who reformed health care in the 19th century—in the fields of nursing and mental health, respectively—but Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell have remained largely unrecognized for their roles in medical history. No longer, though, for Janice P. Nimura’s compelling biography The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine reclaims the sisters’ enduring contributions to medicine and to women’s history.

In breathtaking prose and exhaustive detail, Nimura chronicles the lives of the Blackwell sisters—their childhood in England, their immigration to America, the challenges they faced as they made their way in the medical profession and their eventual establishment of institutions that would provide both access to quality medical care for women and a place where women could study medicine in order to practice it.

Attracted to healing as a teenager, Elizabeth saw medicine as a noble vocation, but as she sought to embrace her calling she encountered resistance at almost every turn. Eventually she was able to graduate from Geneva Medical College in New York, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree, after which she set up a practice in New York City. Emily followed in her older sister’s footsteps, attending Rush Medical College in Chicago and the Medical College of Cleveland, where she became the third woman in the U.S. to receive a medical degree. In 1857, the two sisters founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, and in 1868 they opened the Women’s Medical College in New York City, where Elizabeth taught courses on sanitation and hygiene and Emily taught obstetrics and gynecology. By 1900, the college had trained more than 364 women, and the sisters’ work led to thousands of women becoming educated in the medical field. 

Nimura’s compelling biography not only recovers the lives and work of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell but also provides a colorful social history of medicine in America and Europe during the mid- to late-19th century.

Janice P. Nimura’s compelling biography The Doctors Blackwell reclaims two sisters’ enduring contributions to medicine and to women’s history.

Environmental hazards such as chemicals, additives, pollution and allergens abound in today’s world. We are bombarded by them on a daily basis, yet for most of us, our bodies are able to filter out these foreign substances. But for some people, who call themselves “sensitives”, these bodily processes break down over time, causing people to develop an oversensitivity known as environmental illness, or EI.

Oliver Broudy (The Saint) investigates this condition in a multilayered way, weaving history, science, nature, health and psychology into a narrative with a good old-fashioned road trip as its backbone. Broudy chronicles his journey with a sensitive named James to find Brian, also a sensitive, who has gone missing and just happens to be a leader within the EI community. The two men drive to Snowflake, Arizona, a kind of “sensitives headquarters.” Here they hope to get more intel on Brian, and Broudy hopes to interview Liz, the community’s main “contact.”

Along the way Broudy provides informative commentary about EI, a disorder that can be intensely painful, irritating and maddening, leading those who experience it to develop a range of illnesses and idiosyncrasies. He provides a myriad of theories, expert opinions and patient feedback, highlighting the fluidity of EI’s impetus and evolution.

As the two men thread their way through the western U.S., Broudy describes in vivid detail the sparsely populated outposts that seem frozen in time and the desolate landscapes with rock formations rising up out of the earth as “wrinkled battlements surrounded by the dross of their own crumble the way an autumn tree is ringed by leaves.” Learning about EI is fascinating and even infuriating, but the excursion and bonding experience between the author and his travel companion is even more intriguing. Over miles of open road, Broudy and James learn more about each other and themselves, and the reader is educated about a chemical threat that is “woven into the fabric of everyday life.” The Sensitives: The Rise of Environmental Illness and the Search for America’s Last Pure Place is one road trip you’ll want to take.

Environmental hazards such as chemicals, additives, pollution and allergens abound in today’s world. We are bombarded by them on a daily basis, yet for most of us, our bodies are able to filter out these foreign substances. But for some people, who call themselves “sensitives”, these bodily processes break down over time, causing people to develop an […]

In her new memoir, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness, Sarah Ramey writes about the 2012 day her music video featuring her alter ego, Wolf Larsen, premiered on NPR. It starred a red-lipsticked, vibrant version of herself, and it went viral online while she remained ill, exhausted, frustrated and alone at home.

This moment is but one of many, many times Ramey struggled to put on a happy face while her reality was much more painful. She is what she calls a WOMI, or “woman with a mysterious illness.” In the last 30 years, instances of autoimmune illnesses have tripled, and our medical system has not yet developed a respectful, effective way of working with such patients. Instead, skepticism and dismissiveness (the classic it’s-all-in-your-head response) is the norm, writes Ramey, and people, predominantly women, are staying sick.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our interview with Sarah Ramey.


Ramey’s angry about that, and she explains why with intelligence, humor and impressively thorough and far-ranging research into the various ailments that stem from trauma, exposure to harmful chemicals, consumption of unreal foods, overuse of antibiotics and more—diseases that defy easy diagnosis and a straightforward cure. They’re often invisible, too: WOMIs may look great even as they feel their worst, and that only increases the doubt among medical professionals, or even family or friends.

Ramey shares her own personal health journey, including conventional and alternative treatments; strategies she’s tried that have brought relief (or haven’t); and what she’s learned about the immune system and the gut. She also makes an impassioned case for profound change in our health care system, which, she argues, is out of balance because it lacks consideration and compassion: “We excel at acute (heroic, eliminate the bad guy) illness and can’t for the life of us solve chronic (heroinic, root system) illness.” She urges readers, especially those who are WOMIs, to be open to sharing their stories and asking for change, in an effort to bring about a cultural shift before it’s too late—since what we’re doing now clearly isn’t working for millions of people.

The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness is a stirring and inspiring rallying cry, an engaging and often harrowing personal story (or, as Ramey quips, “a kicky memoir about my gyno-rectal disease”) and an eminently worthwhile read.

In her new memoir, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness, Sarah Ramey writes about the 2012 day her music video featuring her alter ego, Wolf Larsen, premiered on NPR. It starred a red-lipsticked, vibrant version of herself, and it went viral online while she remained ill, exhausted, frustrated and alone at home. This moment […]

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