Tag: Medical/Health

How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves

by Laurel Braitman

Animals sometimes display a wide variety of mental and emotional distress very similar to what humans can experience. The author describes this both first-hand in an account of her adopted dog’s extreme separation anxiety (and how she failed to alleviate it despite trying many many different things) and more widely, drawing from historical and anecdotal accounts as well as personal interviews and travels to visit different places and see for herself how animals are faring.

There are in this book many sad and upsetting stories about animals abused or mistreated when young, shocked by land mines going off under their feet, traumatized by seeing their parents killed, terrorized by thunderstorms, completely lacking social skills due to being removed from their mothers too early and/or isolated, self-mutilating (feather-plucking parrots and paw-licking dogs), lashing out in violence or exhibiting repetitive behaviors (probably from the frustration of being locked up in cages, bored out of their minds, or forced to learn inane tricks) and the list goes on and on. In some cases, clear parallels can be drawn between the animals’ disorders and human psychiatric diagnoses, although nobody will actually call it “mental illness” in animals because we can’t actually know what they are thinking or feeling. In other cases, odd behavior displayed by animals still has no explanation.

There are sea lions and whales that behave strangely, due to absorbing toxins from red tides, or ingesting mercury up the food chain. There are dogs that snap at invisible flies, horses that chew on wood or suck air, apes that pull out their own hair. Much like people with anxiety or OCD. Sections of this book that explained how our understanding of human emotional and/or mental ailments has changed over time due to our own growing knowledge of the mind and how to treat such things, was pretty interesting. In Victorian times for example, many animals were literally said to have died of “a broken heart” or “homesickness” or “melancholia”. Nowadays I’m guessing we would say it was depression with the resulting apathy leading to weight loss and further physical deterioration. I found the chapter where she discussed the idea of can animals commit suicide or not disturbing.

And all the explanations of how unhappy, stressed and crazy animals get when confined and unable to do things really made me feel glum. The author points out that enhanced zoo exhibits for example, often only make the viewers feel better about the animals’ environment, because plants are fake or have to be guarded by electric wires so the animals don’t actually eat or pull them apart. For the animal that’s just frustrating. She pointed out so many behaviors seen in zoo animals that are due to the stress they suffer, no matter how great things are it will never be like a free life, that I now feel guilty for ever enjoying a zoo visit. It went a bit extreme I think, saying that all zoos should be done away with. Yet several stories in here describe great efforts zoo staff went to, helping animals adjust and overcome their problems. Some it took years. This included things like changing the environment, carefully monitoring which animals interacted, behavior modification training, and sometimes even using psychoactive drugs.

Another part of the book that took me by surprise was about whales and dolphins that beach themselves. Apparently a new understanding is that if the animal is so weak or ill it can’t hold itself at the surface to breathe, beaching is a way of being able to rest and not immediately drown (so people shouldn’t try to return them to deep water). I’d never thought of it that before. Why healthy companions beach themselves alongside is still unknown. But it may be they are offering support with their companionship. There were also some great stories of abused or lonely elephants that did so much better after befriending another elephant. It wasn’t people that helped them, it was their own conspecifics.

Well. This book felt a bit repetitive to me at first, because it has some material similar to Zoobiquity, and the parts about elephants included a lot I’d read before too. Also it’s kind of jumpy- switching suddenly back and forth between telling about the author’s dog, to wild animals, to other domestic animals, to what happened to her dog later on, then back to some of his earlier treatment, in a way that was hard to keep track of sometimes. Though I’m not sure I always agree with the author’s conclusions, it had a lot to make me think, and made me realize again how closely we are related to the other animals in our world (emotions and brain chemistry so very much the same). And we often don’t treat them well. I’m saying this in general. I was pretty curious if there were cases of animals displaying mental illness in the wild? but no mention of that. I do remember a few examples from Jane Goodall books- a chimpanzee that lost its mother young and then had bizarre or inappropriate behavior as an adult which caused problems- but I can’t remember the details now.

A lot I can’t mention here, there was actually tons of material in this book- and much of it fascinating. Not all depressing- many stories of animals having a full recovery too- some which are remarkable. Animals often appear to have a lot more resilience than we do, to emotional stress or trauma. I just mentioned the ones that leaped out at me right now. And why is that always the dramatic negatives? I have a copy of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation on my shelf, and feel a strong urge to read it next, though I really could do with something cheerful instead!

Rating: 3/5
374 pages, 2014

More opinions: Book N Around
anyone else?

What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing

by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

Animals can have many of the same illnesses and disorders that humans do, sometimes called by different names. The author (a cardiologist) was surprised when she found out that primates can die of stress-induced heart conditions, and started looking for other examples of maladies that are common in both human and animal species. There’s tons. She started to wonder why veterinarians and human doctors didn’t consult with each other, especially because she saw that in many cases treatment and techniques from one discipline could inform the other. So this book was the result. A bit disappointingly, it didn’t go into a lot of detail on any of the examples, but on the other hand, I really blazed through the pages in a short time. Horses with skin cancer. Gorillas in a zoo with eating disorders. Parrots that self-mutilate. Dogs, rats, monkeys, bighorn sheep and other animals that seek out mind-altering substances and consume them over and over. Pigs that aren’t ill per se, but refuse food to the point of starving. Obese pets and zoo animals (and how their caretakers get them to loose weight). And so many more examples I can’t mention. There’s a whole chapter on animal sexual behavior, and another on diseases transmitted that way (a real problem among wild koalas). For some reason I first had the assumption that this book would be mostly about diseases that cross over from animals to humans, and while it’s not, it does mention viruses like Ebola, West Nile, rabies, lyme disease, toxoplasmosis, etc etc. I can only imagine what it would have to say about covid, had it been written just eight or nine years later! Like The Ancestor’s Tale, this book reminded me how very closely related we really are, to all the other living creatures on this planet.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
308 pages, 2012

More opinions: Man of la Book
anyone else?

Two Dogs, an Unexpected Journey, and Me

by Jon Katz

I felt iffy about this book, at first. When I picked it up off the library shelf, I assumed from the cover and title, that it was mostly about the author’s young black lab, Lenore. And while he does first acquire her as a puppy in this narrative, she’s not the focus by a long shot. It’s more about his border collie Izzy, and himself. The first few chapters honestly started to bore me- I noticed some inconsistencies, and the prose didn’t feel focused. He tells about finding Izzy, a border collie that had been basically living in a field with another dog for three years without human contact. Although has often stated he doesn’t take in rescue animals, the author accepts this dog, thinking he’ll rehabilitate it and then find it a new home. Instead he finds it a new job and purpose working alongside him doing hospice visits. And that’s what most of the book is about: hospice care using dogs to comfort people. Izzy seems to be a natural at it. Mostly he speaks in general about this work, but there are a few stories about specific people they visited regularly during their final weeks. Lenore, the young labrador, doesn’t really come into the picture until chapter fourteen. I didn’t see anything remarkable about her character- she’s food obsessed, friendly and energetic like most lab puppies. But her loving nature is a balm to the author, who honestly relates his struggles with depression and some health issues. For the rest of it, I wasn’t much interested in the pages about his camping trips- yes nature is peaceful and restorative, and camping can take a lot of work and planning too, but nothing about this really stood out to me. To be honest, my favorite part of the whole book was the chapter about his goats. So it was really an uneven read, one I nearly gave up on until I came to the goat chapter, but then kept going because the hospice subject was so gently and honestly written. Just felt like it needed a little better focus in some places.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
205 pages, 2008

by Raina Telgemeier

My ten-year old has been bringing piles of graphic novels home from the library lately. If one snags my eye, I’ll hold onto it longer to read myself. Finished this one a few days ago but then didn’t really feel like writing about it. At first I wasn’t sure why- assumed because it’s a ghost story, and I’m not keen on ghost stories at all. However I think there’s more to it than that.

Ghosts is about two sisters who move with their family to a northern California seaside town. This is supposed to be better for the younger sister’s health- as she has cystic fibrosis, a degenerative lung disease. I know a little about CF; when I was a teenager I read a memoir by a father whose daughter died of it. That was ages ago, so I had some curiosity about how it was depicted in this book- surely treatment is better in current times, and the prognosis not so dire. Well, the story makes it clear this family sees CF as an ultimately fatal disease. The younger sister Maya has questions about death. When the two girls meet some ghosts in the town, the older girl Catrina is afraid of them, whereas Maya just wants to talk to them- to ask her questions. The girls soon discover that a lot of people in town have seen the ghosts, they view them as friendly spirits of their ancestors and look forward to Dia de los Muertos, when they celebrate the lives of those who have gone before, and interact with the ghosts. This was depicted as basically a big party. While I liked how it made the ghosts seem very friendly to kids, and how Maya’s interactions with a child ghost answered some of her preoccupations about death, I felt a bit unsettled by it too. I didn’t know enough about the holiday to be critical or recognize where the depiction in this book gets it wrong, but plenty other readers did and some of their reviews are linked to below. I did like how parts of the story fit together- the presence of the wind, Maya’s difficulties breathing, how the ghosts respond to her breath, how spirited she was even though so unwell. But other aspects just didn’t work for me at all.

For what it’s worth, my ten-year-old really liked the book. Raina Telgemeier is one of her favorite authors now. I am sure she didn’t notice any inaccuracies in the portrayal of Dia de los Muertos but that’s arguably more problematic if it means kids absorb the ideas put forth in this book, to the cost of the truth.

Rating: 2/5
256 pages, 2016

by David Small

Another I won’t easily forget. So fraught and vivid with imagery. Love the way this artist handles line and expressions, I read several parts all over again after finishing. But- the coldness. It’s beyond depressing: growing up in a tough household, not like the last, but tough with bitterness handed down from prior generations, with physical punishments, harsh words, unspoken resentments. Meager meals, unloving hands, and an x-ray technician father who turns the machine on his own son hoping to cure his ailments, only to (probably) give him cancer. The boy needed surgery on his throat when he was a teenager, leaving him unable to speak for a long time afterwards. He plunged himself into his artwork (some of the drawings depict this quite literally). I was absolutely appalled when his mother burned his books (I don’t care for Lolita myself, but I wonder what else was in his collection). I was alternately saddened and horrified all through this book, but couldn’t look away. You really ache after reading this one. It’s another showing how the author practically clawed his way out of a bad situation (leaving home at sixteen), found his place at art school, made a better life for himself. Hard to believe he went through all that, and was able to rise above it.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 5/5
334 pages, 2009

by Elizabeth Graver

This book took me completely by surprise. In how close to home it was. I assumed from the jacket blurbs it was going to be about a troubled kid and a beekeeper- had no idea there was an element of mental illness in there, too. Warning for possible SPOILERS below.

At first this is a story about a mother moving with her pre-teen daughter from New York City to the countryside where she hopes for a fresh start. The daughter, Eva, has been caught shoplifting a number of times, she’s definitely got an attitude and maybe something else is going on. Her mother Miriam has to work long hours to support them, so Eva is left to her own devices- there’s a babysitter but she goes out bike riding and exploring alone. Finds a small farm nearby where a man puts out honey jars by the road for sale, on the honor system. You can guess what happens. Then Eva sneaks into the field where the hives are kept, and meets the beekeeper. She finds his work fascinating, starts pestering him with questions, hanging around, wanting to know more. He shows her things when he opens a hive, in spite of feeling uneasy about it. Meanwhile there’s chapters showing the mother’s point of view, and they weave into the past, telling what happened when Miriam first met Eva’s father. At first I thought this part so dull in comparison- personally I much preferred reading about how the bees were tended, and I related a lot more to the reclusive beekeeper, his reasons for settling on his grandmother’s farm leaving behind a lucrative desk job. . . but I soon found how relevant the backstory of Eva’s parents was.

SKIP this paragraph to avoid SPOILERS: her father had a mental illness, which he failed to disclose to Miriam when they first met, fell in love quickly and had a baby without much planning. He hadn’t had a bad episode in a long time and wanting to be better, thought he’d put it all behind him, until things slowly started unraveling. When Miriam finally realized something was seriously wrong, they were at a crisis point. This all felt way too familiar to me, as a reader- someone in my family has bipolar disorder, so I knew exactly what they were talking about it and a lot of it rang true to me. How the symptoms sneak up on you, subtly getting worse, but you don’t want it to be the mental illness so you don’t see it for what it is at first.. And after you’re always questioning: is my teen just being a teenager? is this normal mood swings? or is it a manic episode.

So I found the book really compelling, even though some of it was uneven, sometimes the dialog a bit awkward, the accident at the end a bit predictable, but not as shocking to me as in say, The Fire Pony. However the ending dropped off abruptly. I expected a bit more resolution- I was glad that Miriam finally told Eva more about her father, but she didn’t really explain the illness, and there was no hint of them finding out the answer to the big question: does Eva have it too. I suppose that’s realistic after all- you wouldn’t immediately tell an eleven-year-old who’s ready to find reasons to distrust you already, that you suspect she could have a serious mental health issue- but still I wanted to know more.

I liked this well enough I’ll look out for more by the same author.

Rating: 3/5
264 pages, 1999

Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

by Henry Marsh

I have a friend who underwent brain surgery last year for a tumor. He had a fifty/fifty chance of recovering without complications, and thankfully that was the case. It could have very well been otherwise. I thought about that a lot as I read this book. It’s authored by a neurosurgeon who works in the NHS- so a lot of details about the system and management were a bit different than what I’m used to, but all the same in a way- frustrations caused by things out of his control, for example. Like sending away for a test while the patient is waiting for their operation and something happens so the test never comes so the procedure gets delayed to the next day- resulting in a very upset patient of course. The surgeon was usually kind and apologetic, but at the same time he often came across as arrogant or dismissive, as when he waved aside someone’s concerns that they woke up from surgery with huge bruises on the face (doctor knew it would go away quickly, patient was very alarmed). The book is full of individual stories about different cancers and injuries he treated- sometimes with descriptive details on how the procedures are performed, other times with more about the patients as people, or the circumstances surrounding the surgery, or how the surgeon felt himself about it all. The tricky balance he had to keep between caution and confidence, to do such delicate and dangerous things inside people’s heads. Some of the stories have good endings, some are terribly tragic, and occasionally there’s one where he never hears of the patient again. As many of the people seeking treatment (or their families) were elderly suffering from brain tumors, there’s also things about end-of-life care and decisions- brought to mind Being Mortal. And purely from the descriptions of the physical art and skill, I was reminded of Mortal Lessons. I also had in mind the few Oliver Sacks books I’ve read- when Marsh explained how specific damage to the brain would affect certain parts of the body or abilities. I think what struck me most about this account, is how acutely honest the surgeon was about his mistakes. It’s rather terrifying to think that if you need brain surgery done, it is, after all, another human performing the operation.

Rating: 4/5
291 pages, 2014

More opinions:  Ex Libris
anyone else?

by Betty MacDonald

Author of the famed book The Egg and I wrote this memoir about her time in a sanatorium when she caught tuberculosis in her thirties. She had to quit her job and leave her young children at home with her mother, not knowing if she would even return. The place sounded very dismal. No talking, laughing, even reading in bed! Sponge baths only once a week, hair getting shampooed even less frequently. Her greatest complaint was simply being cold all the time, even when hot water bottles were brought to her bed, they were lukewarm at best. The main treatment at the time (1930’s) was very strict bed rest- and there were a number of unpleasant-sounding surgical procedures that were done to intentionally collapse the lung in order to make it rest completely. I can’t imagine having to lie absolutely still in a bed for weeks or months on end. She mentioned quite a few patients who had been in the sanatorium for years. Rumors abounded among the patients of who had died, what type of surgeries or treatment they’d had, etc. Sounded like nothing was ever explained to the patients- where they were going when a nurse arrived with a wheelchair, what the results of tests were, what the doctor thought after evaluating their condition, etc. Always kept in the dark- and then lectured to constantly about the rules.

Well, eventually she healed enough to be allowed to sit up in bed for a short period of time per day, which was gradually extended until she earned the privilege to walk to the bathroom, or down the hall, or have a bed outside on the porch, etc. She gives lively character sketches about her fellow patients, roommates, the nurses and staff- sometimes not very complimentary, of course. Oddly enough, what I found most interesting about this book was simply reading about treatment for a disease that doesn’t seem to be a huge problem anymore- how archaic and long-suffering it sounded. How dismal the outcome for so many. While I could tell the author was attempting to put a humorous spin on everything, I only chuckled a few times, I didn’t really find it funny even when I knew she was exaggerating. It just felt- kind of dull. Might be my mood. Of course she was relieved to finally be declared healthy enough to go home- but then had to face a difficult adjustment period, still finding more to relate to with her prior roommates from the sanatorium- she stayed in touch with a few- disgruntled that her family hadn’t cleaned out the room she was going to stay in, and alternately annoyed or embarrassed that many people shunned her presence in public, fearful she was still contagious. It’s interesting for a glimpse into the past, but I didn’t find it much more than that. I think I ought to read it again at another time.

Rating: 2/5
226 pages, 1948

More opinions: A Penguin a week
anyone else?

by Sharon Draper

This middle-grade fiction is about a ten-year-old who has cerebral palsy. Melody is plenty smart and has a photographic memory, but she can’t walk, feed herself or speak- until she gets a new computer that gives her a voice. At school she’s been in a special education room for years, but is now excited to be “integrated” into music and a few other classes per day with the regular kids. Especially with a fancy new wheelchair she can drive by herself and then her talking computer. She just wants to fit in but it’s hard. More kids notice her now that she has a voice, but she still gets stared at or outright teased and insulted. Nobody seems to believe that she’s anything other than mentally deficient, even the teachers have this demeaning attitude. Several kids seem to think the computer is allowing her to cheat- and two girls in particular single her out to be mocked. Melody is determined to prove herself and joins the quiz team, but things turn disastrous right before a big competition. Some kids on the team seem determined to sabotage Melody’s ability to participate- but in the end, they’re only ruining their own chances.

I found this book at a library sale. Surprised to realize I must have read it before- but I only recalled things from the beginning and end. The whole thing about the fake snowman they decorated was really familiar, and so was the intensely dramatic scene at the end involving Melody’s little sister. I’m baffled why I had forgotten nearly all of the middle events- including everything about the quiz team- and why this book wasn’t already noted on my blog, when it was published after I started keeping a record. I must have read it with my oldest at a younger age, and maybe we only read parts together.

Regardless, certain aspects of the book didn’t work for me personally- some of the adult’s actions felt unrealistic, the way Melody was treated in school seemed rather atrocious (not the teasing, but the total lack of educational structure and advocacy) and often I felt like Melody’s mother was saying things a kid would want to hear their mother say, not very realistic either. But for what it is, a book written for middle-grade kids about a peer with a physical disability, I think it gives a pretty clear picture what that’s like. How so many ordinary things like putting on clothes or participating in conversations or navigating stairs to get into a building, become obstacles and struggles. And that kids with disabilities have thoughts and feelings and want to be included like everyone else.

The goldfish incident bothered me, though. Probably because I’m a fishkeeper. And why didn’t she explain it to anyone afterwards, when she finally had her talking computer? Sigh.

Similar read, a true story from adult perspective: I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes.

Rating: 3/5
295 pages, 2010

Medicine and What Matters in the End 

by Atul Gawande

     Traditionally, people used to live with their grown children or extended families when they grew old and became incapacitated. Now it\’s far more common (at least here) for the elderly to live in nursing homes or assisted living units. There\’s also the option of in-home hospice care, but I think what few would really want is where many end up in their final moments- holding on until the very end suffering from unpleasant procedures or unconscious, tethered in a hospital bed. This very thoughtful and sobering book looks at all those scenarios, describing the history of how nursing homes and assisted living became a thing, looking at how they\’ve changed over the years, and examining whether those options really are in the best interest of the elderly people they serve. The doctor (I must read more by him!) also looks carefully at what people actually want as the end of their lives draws near- what\’s most important to them, and how can it be achieved. It\’s not always seeking every last treatment that has the smallest chance of a positive outcome. It\’s usually the simple things that begin to matter most- being close to family and friends, maintaining some autonomy, feeling like their lives have had worth . . . There are a lot of poignant examples from people Dr. Gawande has known- his own acquaintances, patients, friends, and finally, in a very personal and moving account, his own father. It\’s difficult to read at times and makes you think about the hard things that nobody really wants to discuss, but points out how important those discussions are before they become crucial. I\’m very glad I read this.

Rating: 4/5             282 pages, 2014
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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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