Tag: Medical/Health

Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

by Mary Roach

I finally made it through a Mary Roach book! Yes, it was easier read on pages, than listened to via audiobook. For some reason this way my brain was able to skip over all the tedious humor. It did get a bit tiresome still, whether from the gross factor or the writing style I’m not sure- but I took breaks and read three other books in the middle of this one. This author has an odd slant on things. Definitely seems to just be satisfying her curiosity, and thus by extension the readers’, though I’m sure most others, like me, never realized they had any interest in the things Mary Roach delves into. She’ll be talking along almost normally about the pressure of your jaws in chewing and how delicate and instantaneous the subconscious control of that is- and then suddenly dive into another subject entirely, on a weird tangent, it’s like constantly tripping out of the converstion and falling down a series of rabbit holes you never knew existed. With plenty of strange and obscure details.

The focus here is on how we eat- what attracts us to food, cultural norms and taboos, how the senses dictate what we like, why crunchy foods are satisfying, how food scientists decide what pet food will taste like how strong are the stomach’s digestive juices, can parasites chew their way out of a stomach, people who put objects up their nether regions (for smuggling or pleasure), reasons people were given nutrients that way, an absurd amount of text spent on flatulence, why many animals digest things twice (especially rodents who eat their own droppings) and SO MUCH MORE. More than you ever wanted to know. Not sure what was more stomach-turning, reading about awful experiments done on animals and patients alike in times not-so-distant past, or reading about some unpleasant ailments of the digestive system. I was a bit miffed at how flippantly dismissive the author was about gluten intolerance, and I suspect people who suffer from other maladies will feel the same about her attitude towards other things in this book that are too close to home for them. It’s all very flippant, snarky, gleeful in the details (often when you didn’t want that) and yes, very satisfying if you were dying of curiosity to know some things.

Honestly I think the best part of the book is two pages where she discusses the apparent source for myths about fire-breathing dragons. That was fantastic. But I need a good long break before I read another book by this author, ha.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
348 pages, 2013

More opinions:
Ardent Reader
Dear Author
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by Raina Telgemeier

By the same author as Sisters. Graphic novel memoir about the author’s fifth grade year, when she suffered from stomach troubles. First they just thought it was a virus, but then she started having panic attacks about possibly vomiting, worry over food choices, stomach upset and IBS symptoms when upsetting things happened- either at home or at school. There’s friend troubles, school stress, someone who might be bullying her, and the headaches of living in a very small cramped apartment. The story doesn’t go much beyond that- it’s kind of a slice-of-life look at how she deals with everyday issues, has some testing done (which frustratingly doesn’t show any reason for her stomach problems) and finally goes to therapy- addressing the anxiety, fears, stress etc. Very clear in addressing how emotional issues can make the body feel physically unwell, how all kinds of people have their problems (turns out the bully had a different kind of digestive issue, so at the end the main character could finally relate to her antagonist), and how helpful therapy can be- assauging the social stigma on that, too. I read this in one sitting. Another book my eleven-year-old really liked, she was very surprised I hadn’t read it yet!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
218 pages, 2019

by Greer Macallister

Note: spoilers below!

Set in the late 1800’s, this story is about two sisters who live in San Franciso. Charlotte has always felt protective of her younger sister Phoebe, who appears to have bipolar disorder (and myabe schizophrenia). Her behavior becomes unmanageable (mostly because it publicly embarasses the family) so the parents send Phoebe to an insane asylum. Charlotte is heartbroken and angered by this, and determines to get her sister back. She fakes a suicide attempt, is quickly bundled off to the nearest mental institution- conveniently the same one her sister’s in. Then begins a long, dangerous search to find her sister and bring her home. Dangerous because of course, once inside the asylum Charlotte is at the mercy of the staff. She discloses nothing at first, attempting to fit in and act like she really belongs there. Treatments ranged from ludicrous to downright horrific- although some probably had merit- such as forced walks out in the open air for exercise. Food was poor quality, drugs were administered freely to those deemed difficult to control, and physical punishment or confinement – being beaten, tied up or shut in dark padded cells- a regular thing. Charlotte gets to know some of the other inmates, finds a secret map, sneaks around and eventually locates her sister. She thinks now the hard part is over: just tell the doctor they’re both sane, and they’ll get out. But nobody believes her.

This book is labeled a mystery on the cover, which I didn’t realize when I picked it up. I didn’t think I liked mysteries! but here I wanted to find the answer to questions: would Charlotte find her sister in the asylum? would they avoid the worst of the treatments and escape? I’m glad this story looked at some of the tougher issues. So many of the women in there were not actually suffering from mental illness. They had defied convention, refused to follow social norms, displeased their husbands, or were simply found inconvenient. Charlotte is outraged when she discovers this, and determines to do something about it- but then she’s surprised to find not all of her new friends want to leave the asylum. Some find the freedom to act and speak out in that environment liberating. Others actually need to be “looked after”- suffering from depression, epilepsy, or any number of disorders.

I liked that this story tied up all the loose ends (thought some felt a bit too tidy). When Charlotte and her sister finally get free and return home, they’re not exactly welcomed with open arms. They learn that powerful people in the community run the asylum (for profit from items the inmates made with forced labor) and aren’t going to make readily change things. Charlotte is promised to a certain man to marry, but she wants the brother instead (this was told a lot in flashbacks). One of her friends who escapes the asylum with them, reveals that she was there because her husband had attempted to murder her, and now he has to be confronted. Charlotte’s sister Phoebe doesn’t feel comfortable in their family home after having lived at the asylum so many years. It’s all quite a mess, but gets straightened out well enough.

This one was audiobook format- 13 hours of listening time. Voice of Nina Alvamar. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
368 pages, 2019

More opinions: Small World Reads
That’s What She Read
anyone else?

by Julia Green

Sweet, gentle little book about a girl struggling with loneliness and anxiety. Her mother is having a difficult pregnancy and bedridden with illness, her father is always working in his study, and they’ve recently moved to a new house, with a new school where Tilly doesn’t have any friends. It’s a lot. She explores the old house a bit, but spends most of her time outside in the yard. Then Tilly sees a fox run through a gap in the fence, and follows it into an unkempt, overgrown garden behind their property. This becomes her secret place, where she builds a little hideout and often sits quietly hoping to see the fox. She sneaks out there at night. And meets a girl named Helen in the garden, who becomes her friend.

But- is Helen real? I started to suspect a few chapters in that there was something more to this story. First I thought Helen might be a ghost, then perhaps magical, a fairy? It turns out to be a bit more mundane- Tilly is sleepwalking, and Helen is imaginary. As the story progresses, things slowly change. Mother seems to take a turn for the worst, spending the end of her pregnancy in the hospital. Tilly’s anxiety is heightened, but her grandmother comes to stay, infusing the house with cheerful activity. She’s given an unoffical mental health break from school for a few days, and when she goes back there’s a new girl in class the teacher introduces her to. As Tilly finds relief from her fears (her mother returns home in good health, with the new baby) and makes a new friend at school, gaining some confidence by being asked to help someone else in need, her attachment to Helen in the garden starts to dissipate. She’s okay now.

I actually liked that this story took me by surprise, making me read between the lines. Some things are subtle enough in here that a younger reader might not pick up on it, and just enjoy the magical feeling of the story. I couldn’t help thinking of Tom’s Midnight Garden while reading this, of course- and also The Secret GardenThe Midnight Fox is also mentioned in this book, and there’s an unmistakable nod to Charlotte’s Web as well. Also, I found this second cover image online- apparently the book had a title change. I like the current title better, but the fox cover more closely matches the books’ interior illustrations by Paul Howard, which are gentle and lovely.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
199 pages, 2012

More opinions: Kid Lit Geek
anyone else?

How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine

by Maria Goodavage

About how dogs help people with medical issues. Most of the dogs in this book are service dogs, though some are “just” beloved pets that learned intuitively how to help their owners, and others work purely in research. While a lot of these dogs can help people with physical tasks- opening the fridge, picking up dropped items, etc- they’re specifically trained in detecting issues before they become severe, preventing them from happening or helping the person recover, or giving emotional support to help people with mental health issues. Never again will I scoff internally at the idea of an “emotional support animal”- this book makes clear what a huge difference trained assistance dogs can make in people’s lives.

It starts on a different note, though- talking about cancer detection, with many anecdotal stories about dogs that kept poking a spot on a person’s body- later it was found they had cancer there. Now dogs are being trained to sniff samples and indicate the presence of cancer- while scientists are studying the molecular compounds of the positive samples to figure out exactly what the dogs are alerting to, so they can detect it earlier by other means. Then the book talks about dogs that alert to tell their owners an eplieptic seizure is imminent, or to alert diabetics to a dangerously high/low blood sugar level, or dogs that sense an oncoming panic attack and lead their human to a quieter, safer space. There’s even a dog in this book whose owner suffers from PTSD, who wakes him up if he’s having nightmares. Dogs that help children with autism stay calm. Dogs that help victims of catastrophe talk about what they experienced. Even dogs whose presence in a courtroom helps children feel brave enough to testify against those who harmed them. The book is just as much about how these dogs are trained (many were initially in programs to assist the blind but “failed” out of that and took a different career route) as it is about how much they’ve changed the lives of people they help. Also a lot about new studies and technology- pretty amazing to read about the FIDO vest prototype, which lets dogs trigger a computerized voice that can tell a stranger their owner needs help, or some other verbalized message. Also very interesting in here was to read of cases where dogs help people who have a very rare medical condition (most I’d never heard of), so service dogs aren’t regularly trained to assist with it, but trainers or family members found a way to let the dog know what to do. And the canines just seem to pick it up naturally- feeling anxious or unsettled when something goes wrong, and wanting to make things right again, seems to be the explanation.

As a side note, there was one part of this book that tidily dated it for me. In one chapter the author tells about dogs that sniff out dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals, to help staff keep the environment cleaner, and stop it from spreading. There was a sentence or two in there explaining what a PCR test is. I thought to myself: surely most people are aware of PCR testing? and then flipped to the copyright page, realized of course, this book was written pre-Covid.

Somewhat similar reads: Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson, Navy Seal Dogs by Mike Ritland, The New Work of Dogs by Jon Katz

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
353 pages, 2019

My Unexpected Journey with Trauma, Burns and Recovery

by Samuel Moore-Sobel

Inspirational memoir about a burn victim’s recovery. The author was a teenager when he accepted what seemed like a mundane job- helping someone move items from a garage into a rental truck. The job kept dragging on as the man who’d hired him changed his mind about where items were going- and it ended with him on someone else’s property, where he accidentally got splashed with sulfuric acid that had been improperly stored. He was severely burned on his face, neck and arms. Luckily didn’t loose his vision, but the healing process took a very long time regardless. He tells about the accident in detail, the pain and confusion. The anger, frustration and shock his family had over the incident. The many treatments to his skin and surgeries over the years- to help it heal, lessen scar tissue and improve his breathing, which was impacted by a scar under his nose and damage where the acid had splashed inside. Aside from all the pain and discomfort, there was the mental toll- insecurities about his appearance, facing the reactions of strangers and other kids at school, worry that he’d never find a romantic partner in the future. Symptoms of stress and depression that turned out to be PTSD, also recurrent panic attacks that happened with no warning, and how he finally sought help, went through therapy. Being a religious person, he struggled with his faith, too (ie: how could God let this happen), and in the end, after many many years of wading through the difficulties of recovery, one of the best parts of the story is reading how he attended a conference for burn victims. Meeting other people who had been through the same kind of experience gave him a feeling of acceptance, and a new outlook. It was a vivid read. Very honest and well-told. Although a bit odd that the chapters are all so incredibly short- most just a page or two each- but I got used to that format after a while. Reading it is like having someone sitting right there telling you their story directly.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
282 pages, 2020

A Memoir of a Unique Journey to True Health

by Dee McGuire

I found this book browsing. I picked it up out of curiosity- how could health be accidental? The blurb on the back gave me no indication of what health issues the author struggled with, or how she overcame them- it sounded inspiring, but vague. Oddly none of the reviews online mention the conditions that were debilitating the author’s life, so I will tell although with a note of spoilers if you want to be surprised. Because I didn’t see where this story was going, and then it sure made me sit up and take notice. (And this post gets a bit personal because of how I related to it).

She suffered acute back pain, for many many years. It became more severe with pain in other joints, skin problems, difficulty concentrating and lots of other symptoms that just seemed to pile up. Visits to doctors and specialists, multiple surgeries on her back, neck and knees, pain medications and physical therapy- none of it really did any good. In the middle of all this was a frightening time, suddenly learning she had breast cancer, getting surgery, and just as suddenly told it was completely resolved. Really I was appalled to read how callously and brusquely the doctors treated her, with her concerns about conditions that were undermining her whole life they seemed to think unimportant. Unless she was leaving something out, I can’t imagine meeting doctors who give you so little actual consideration.

I started to suspect one of the major answers she found to her health issues, when I read that after a certain proecdure, she was unable to eat for a number of days, and her body aches and some other complaints instantly disappeared. Only to return later. I skipped ahead to see if gluten was mentioned in future pages and stared at a sentence in the beginning of chapter thirteen: My goal was to avoid wheat, rye and barley, the grains containing gluten. It was celiac disease (or a gluten intolerance?) Discovered when she noticed a friend at work avoiding certain foods, and asked about her diet- the friend was gluten-free which sparked McGuire’s interest. She decided to just try eating differently for a few days, and was amazed at the difference in how she felt. Her pain was gone.

I know exactly this feeling. I’ve been there: so delighted in the flexibility and ease to move my body that I laugh out loud to my family: “look, I can touch my toes! I can walk barefoot and my feet don’t hurt!” It’s just so shockingly wonderful to have that chronic pain gone that you’re stunned at how good you feel- it’s like a miracle, and yet that’s how you ought to feel every day, ha. So I could relate well to this part of her story. Her frustration in trying to make new food selections in the grocery store (yeah gluten-free on the label doesn’t always mean what you hope it does). Her quest to figure out what other foods bothered her digestive system and caused flareups. She moved on to visit a fuctional medicine doctor. (I had to look that up- seems to be another kind of alternative medicine) and then did a detox. To be honest, I’m skeptical about detox, and some of the other measures the functional doctor recommended (not to mention the staggering expense, and all those tests!)

But this story resonated with me because I could relate to all the stuff about how gluten had affected her autoimmune system and caused her joint pain. I’ve had those moments, when suddenly my wrist hurt so acutely I’d drop something, or my knee so I’d have to stop walking and hold onto something, or my lower back so I’d need a cushion or heat pad behind it to drive. I’d wake up in the morning with my body hurting and have to roll out of bed and lever myself up from the floor, because I couldn’t just sit up in bed. At one point I could barely bend to tie my shoes. I was on the verge of going to the doctor to find out if I had arthritis or some joint issue when I stumbled on the idea that gluten could be causing another chronic issue I had (insomnia) so I tried going gluten-free for a few days. Just to see. It was a shock and delight, to find that my insomnia, joint pain and many other symptoms disappeared. Most have never come back, except for the few times I accidentally have gluten exposure again.

So I’m there with the author on all this. The need to clean out your kitchen, to be super careful in restaurants, to ask people about ingredients if they make you food, to read labels on food packages more discerningly. I’ve found cross-contamination and trace amounts really do affect me. I appreciated reading the particulars on how her family found ways to eat healthier and avoid the foods that gave them problems (her kids had minor issues that were resolved when they avoided gluten too).

The whole book is kind of a wake-up call, that the things you put in your body really do matter. That having good health could be as simple as giving your body the wholesome foods it needs to maintain itself properly. Not all the author’s health issues were resolved when she went gluten-free, cut individually problematic foods and did her detox. But the worst ones dissipated and she felt increasingly better as time went on. I’m glad she was determined to keep seeking for answers, and that she shared her story.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
201 pages, 2021

by Oliver Sacks

This book, following Uncle Tungsten, was fascinating to me just because of how much I didn’t know about the man. It starts when he was about fourteen, tells about his young adult years, univeristy education, how he figured out his career, his experiences writing books, his intellectual family (and schizophrenic older brother), many lasting friendships with colleagues, his compassion and concern for neurologic patients, and so much more. I would have had no idea (apart from the cover image) that Sacks was very much into motorcycles as a young man, and loved to travel the country on his bike. That he was seriously into weight-lifting. That he was gay, fell in love a few times, it never quite worked out. That he wanted to do research but was kind of a “walking disaster” in the lab- loosing items, breaking things, etc- until he was politely told to leave (this during university years). His passion was people- learning about their lives and how everything interacted with or influenced their neurological disease. He was vividly interested in the case histories his mother would tell (she was a surgeon) and put this same passion into telling stories, only in book form- and after gaining the consent of patients, many whom wished their stories told, because they felt forgotten and ignored. These were often patients who lived in long-term care facilities or hospitals. Sacks tells of his writing process, his many frustrations in bringing books to press, his travels and the thrill of new discoveries in the field. It was wonderful to read the “backstory” as it were, of his books that I’m familiar with, and has fired my interest to read all the others. The last chapters of this book were difficult for me to get through- they go into more detail on the workings of the brain, which I struggled to understand. But this one’s staying on my shelf, maybe I’ll comprehend more with a re-read someday.

Rating: 4/5
398 pages, 2015

(a true story)

by Joni Rodgers

This book is also about cancer. It has a completely different tone than the last one. The author’s personality is pretty much a polar opposite, she was an actress (teaching children theater classes, doing voices on the air, commercials, etc) married in a loving relationship with two children when cancer struck. It’s so similar to the last read in terms of describing the shock of diagnosis, the difficult treatments, the awkwardness of people not knowing what to say, absolute drain of being so ill for so very long. The strangeness she felt when it seemed to finally be over: she’d made it, she’d survived, but fighting off cancer had consumed her life for so many years- nothing felt the same. Unlike the prior read (I can’t help compare the two so closely)- which seemed to take place in solitude and hospital stays, not much family present in the book- this story is permeated with the author’s family. How terribly hard it was for them. How confused her young children were about some things, totally accepting of others, angry when she was unable to care for them, and so on. All the ups and downs, how they made it through. Especially with her husband. I admit, some of the parts about how cancer treatment affected their love life was told a bit too intimately for my taste! And for such a very long time her relationship with food was affected afterwards. What it’s like to go through this illness and survive it is described in such brutal detail, it can be hard to read- but it’s all lightened by her humor. Jokes everywhere. They didn’t always make sense to me (or make me laugh), but still I think this book might be a keeper, to stay on my shelf, just because it’s such a contrast to the other. Something else took me by surprise- her exploration of faith didn’t bore or exasperate me (my usual reaction nowadays to reading someone’s religious effusions). What she said made sense, I respected and appreciated how she worked her way through re-evaluating life, and also explored some alternative ideas and views along the way (once consulting a shaman, another time visiting a naturopath, for example). It’s a very candid, forthright story about one woman’s journey through the black gulf of cancer and out the other side.

Parallel read: Autobiography of a Face

Rating: 3/5
253 pages, 2001

by Lucy Grealy

Lucy Grealy suffered from cancer in her jaw as a child. It was treated with surgical removal (an entire third of her jawbone), chemotherapy and radiation. She survived the cancer but her face was forever disfigured. It sounds like she spent most of her childhood and young adult years in and out of hospitals, or convalescing at home- years and years of reconstructive surgeries that failed, when the grafts were reabsorbed by her body. It’s difficult to read about the loneliness and pain she endured (including a family that rarely discussed things). But to her those were almost nothing, compared to the mental and emotional suffering by how people saw her afterwards. Such was the internal life of a child, for a long time she didn’t even realize how sick she was, she had no idea what chemo and radiation would do to her body. She found comfort and security in the sameness of the hospitals, being surrounded by other patients, not seen as someone unusual or unattractive there. It was when she returned to school and other kids cruelly made fun of her, that she finally understood how her appearance differed. For a long time after she always hoped that the next surgery would be the one to restore her face, to make her look normal again. She was baffled by women in a plastic surgeon’s office who were there to alter their noses or breasts- thinking she’d be happy to have just regular features like them. College years followed, where she finally found friends who saw past her appearance, where she cultivated an air of otherness, honed her writing skills as a poet, and longed to be loved by someone.

There were also horses. She worked in stables, briefly owned a horse when a friend moved and couldn’t take him (it died suddenly), then had another years later when her parents were able to buy her one. She talks a lot about how comforting it was to be around the animals, to work closely with them. And how restorative the non-judgemental attitude of her co-workers in the stable, people who like her just mostly cared about the horses. On another note, she also found comfort in words, philosophers and poets, explored Buddhism, existentialism and even Christianity. I admit sometimes I didn’t quite get what she meant, her thought process was occasionally obscure to me, but her musings on the nature of beauty, the importance of knowing people for who they are, really struck me. So many painful words, insightful and beautiful ones too

She was friends with Ann Patchett, who wrote about their relationship in a memoir Truth and Beauty. However reading accounts like this makes me have some reservations on reading it or not.

There’s an interview with the author here.

Rating: 4/5
223 pages, 1994

More opinions:
Books on the Brain
Draft No. 4]
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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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