In December of 2000, doctors noticed a shadow on Terence Foleyâ€™s kidney. Seven years and more than $600,000 later, Foley died of the cancer that spread from his kidneys to his brain. In â€śThe Cost of Hope,â€ť a wrenching and insightful memoir of her husbandâ€™s illness, Amanda Bennett asks: were those seven years worth the price? The answer, of course, is yes, but Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal editor, questions our complex and arbitrary medical and insurance complexes, making a strong argument for a health care system that serves the patient, instead of doctors, hospitals, and for-profit corporations. Many others, patients and doctors alike, have written memoirs raising similar questions about the psychic and financial toll of the business of getting well. Here we scan some of those titles.
â€śMemoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancerâ€ť by Susan Gubar
It sounds like a procedure for getting an overloaded cargo plane off the ground, but in fact debulking is a medical technique by which doctors remove a patientâ€™s internal organs in the hope of controlling the spread of cancer. Gubar, a poet and critic, underwent the procedure after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008. In this memoir, she writes without sentimentality about having her body ravaged by surgeonsâ€™ scalpels, and how she found solace and even hope in her life and her work throughout the ordeal.
â€śTwelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospitalâ€ť by Eric Manheimer
As medical director of New York Cityâ€™s Bellevue, the countryâ€™s oldest public hospital, Dr. Eric Manheimer had witnessed the illnesses and struggle for life of patients ranging from Rikers Island inmates to visiting dignitaries to the United Nations. He chooses to open his memoir, though, with a patient unlike any other he had treated: himself. At the age of fifty-eight, Manheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer, which was treated with an aggressive course of radiation and surgery. In this book, he weaves the story of his own treatment with recollections from other patients, concluding that being sick made him a different -- and better -- doctor.
â€śCritical Care: A New Nurse Faces Life, Death, and Everything in Betweenâ€ť by Theresa Brown
If youâ€™ve spent time in a hospital, you know that while the doctors get the glory, the nurses often do most of the work -- changing bedpans, administering pain medication, holding patientsâ€™ hands. Brown, a former English professor at Tufts, captures her first year as a nurse in the oncology ward by writing, simply, â€śAt my job, people die.â€ť Patients often question Brownâ€™s decision to swap academia for the grueling, physically demanding work of nursing (some assume she couldnâ€™t find teaching work; others just ask if sheâ€™s crazy). But Brown finds meaning and even joy in her work, which often includes talking with patients about â€śthe vagaries of life and death,â€ť and which, she says, has given her a greater appreciation of her own life and health.Â
â€śThe Diving Bell and the Butterflyâ€ť by Jean-Dominique Bauby
When Jean-Dominique Bauby awoke from a coma following a severe stroke, he discovered he was completely paralyzed, save his left eye. Gradually, Bauby learned to communicate by blinking, painstakingly picking out words letter by letter. Using this method, he composed a memoir of his life before the stroke, when he was a bon vivant editor of a French fashion magazine, and his extraordinary existence as a man almost entirely locked inside his own body, but whose vivid imagination allowed him to go on living a life of remembered and fantasized sensations and experiences. Bauby died two days after the French publication of his memoir, which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film by Julian Schnabel in 2007.