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Lapham's Quarterly - Medicine: Volume II,…
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Lapham's Quarterly - Medicine: Volume II, Number 4, Fall 2009

by Lewis Lapham

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Medicine deals with life and death and has inspired some of the greatest writing, it's a genre that apparently I have overlooked. Herein are excerpts of some of the best:

We begin with A Journey Around My Skull, a memoir by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938), where he first learns about a brain tumor as blood in the eye. Kay Redfield Jamison in An Unquiet Mind (1995) gives one of the best descriptions of going insane I've ever read, "the blood on the window had merged into the sunset". Zhisui Li in The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994) gives a curious account of Mao's first dentist appointment, with dark teeth green from tea and gums oozing puss Mao asks, "Is it really that serious?", the dentist replied "Yes, I wouldn't fool you." Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985) describes an elderly patient who had late onset syphilis (70 years post-exposure) and because of its side effects, euphoria, decided to leave it untreated.

John Barth in The End of the Road envisions a fictional scene of an illegal abortion that goes terribly wrong in a 1950s era Maryland suburb (morale: don't eat hot-dogs beforehand). A transcript from the 1971 film The Hospital, starring George C Scott. "Let him go. Before we will him." Mikhail Bulgakov in A Country Doctor's Notebook tells about rural Russia and a newbie doctor who tries to save a girl with a silver tube down the throat (if he can only find the windpipe). James Orbinski in An Imperfect Offering (2008) describes a scene of chaos and horror at a hospital in Kigali on the opening day of the Rwandan genocides. "Courage, courage my friend." Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse during the Civil War and wrote a vivid account of the colorful patients under her care in Hospital Sketches (1863).

Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (1997) jaw-droppingly describes what it is like to be completely paralyzed, using only his left eyelid to communicate his memoir, "I would be the happiest of men if I could just swallow the overflow of saliva that endlessly floods my mouth." Two days after it was published he died (the book was later made into a film). Fanny Burney in 1811 wrote a letter to her sister describing her mastectomy without anesthesia, a 20-minute ordeal in which her scream never faltered for want of breath. Joan Didion has migraines and tells us what it's like, after the pain has passed there is a "pleasant convalescent euphoria. I feel the air, sleep well, eat gratefully. I count my blessings." ( )
  Stbalbach | Jan 29, 2010 |
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I have learned much from disease which life could never have taught me anywhere else - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1830
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President Barack Obama during his first months in office seldom has missed a chance to like the country's healthcare system to an unburied corpse, which if left lying around in the sun by the 111th congress, threatens to foul the sweet summer air of the American dream.
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