Heart’s Oratorio

It is Spring Break and instead of heading to warm beaches I’ve been indulging in a massive reading intensive, staying up into the wee hours of the morning IMG_0775finishing book after book as if they were bonbons. Some have been disappointing reads (like biting into a chocolate bonbon only to discover a nasty fake cherry filling): Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus, and Michelle Kennedy’s Without a Net). Others have been rewarding, such as Colum Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. But one book stands out as a keeper and worthy of future re-reads and study: Mary Oak’s Heart’s Oratorio: One Woman’s Journey through Love, Death, and Modern Medicine (Goldenston Press, 2013).

First, a disclaimer. I know Mary from my monthly writing group—the Shipping Group—that meets at my favorite bookstore, Elliott Bay Book Company. Mary is a quietly strong and centered woman. But that is not why I love her book. I love her book because it is beautifully written and tells a powerful and unique medical narrative. I love her book because it helped me to view the medical system from a different perspective.

Mary has died twice in the past decade. The first time she died was in 2007 in the Houston airport while running to catch a connecting flight to Paris. She collapsed in the airport terminal. Otherwise healthy but having asymptomatic ‘athlete’s heart,’ she experienced sudden cardiac death, then was brought back to life through the actions of emergency medical personnel and hospital treatment. Back home in Seattle, Mary underwent two cardiac surgeries at Northwest Hospital. During the second surgery, to implant a cardiac defibrillator, Mary’s heart stopped once again. But that is just the background medical drama of her story. The real story is Mary’s spiritual journey through it all. Mary comes from a long line of homeopath and Christian Science healers and had avoided most all things allopathic. But as she writes, “Nothing like sudden death to invite a different perspective.” Mary’s book is also a love story: her love and care for her children who may have inherited her cardiac condition, as well as her love of David who becomes her husband and cares for her through her illnesses.

Although I neither share Mary’s spiritual beliefs nor her long family history of spiritual healers, I was drawn into a deeper understanding of and respect for them through her story. I can envision using her book in the nursing education that I do. Many parts of Mary’s medical narrative occurred right here in Seattle in hospitals where my students are trained and may eventually work—so it is literally close to home. Mary describes walking past my own university office (in the world’s largest and ugliest university building/photo attached here) on her way to find her medical records:

“Then I walk city blocks’ worth of narrow hallways with low ceilings and polished tan vinyl floors. I pass countless numbered doors. Only one is open: to a room of legless and armless dummies on the floor for a CPR training. No one is there. As I walk past various laboratories and offices, I wonder how much debt I will incur with this latest round of medical consultations. Will I live to pay it off?”

Becoming A Nurse: Nurse Writer Panel Discussion

You are all invited/open to the public:

Becoming a Nurse

Nurse Writer Panel Discussion and Reading

Thursday April 18th 6-8:30pm

Suzzallo Library Smith Room

6-6:30 Light Refreshments

6:30-8:30 Panel Discussion, Reading, and Book Signing

I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse

Edited by Lee Gutkind

In Truth Press. Pub. Date: April 2, 2013

This collection of true narratives captures the dynamism and diversity of nurses, who provide the vital first line of patient care. Here, nurses remember their first “sticks,” first births, and first deaths, and reflect on what gets them through long demanding shifts, and keeps them in the profession. The stories reveal many voices from nurses at different stages of their careers: One nurse-in training longs to be trusted with more “important” procedures, while another questions her ability to care for nursing home residents. An efficient young emergency room nurse finds his life and career irrevocably changed by a car accident. A nurse practitioner wonders whether she has violated professional boundaries in her care for a homeless man with AIDS, and a home care case manager is the sole attendee at a funeral for one of her patients. What connects these stories is the passion and strength of the writers, who struggle against burnout and bureaucracy to serve their patients with skill, empathy, and strength.

Panel will include an interview with Theresa Brown who writes for the NYT Well Blog. Participants include Josephine Ensign, DrPH, Associate Professor, Department of Psychosocial and Community Health, whose essay Next of Kin appears in the anthology.

This project was supported, in part, by an award from 4Culture  4culture_color

University of Washington Health Science Library   logo-hsl-admin-color-printer

My Week As A Chavista

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFormer Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is having a state funeral today, being buried in the red beret and green army uniform he came into power with fourteen years ago. He won’t really be buried. Instead, his body will be “embalmed like Lenin” and displayed in a glass case for “eternity,” perhaps in his recently built New Museum of the Revolution, or in the new $60 million Mausoleum for Simon Bolivar.

The first time I visited Venezuela was in August 1999, during Chavez’s first year of presidency. He had publicly vowed to end poverty and homelessness—a laudable if impossible goal. I spent a month in Venezuela, first in the mega-city Caracas and then in the agricultural state of Yaracuy. It was there that I found myself wearing a red shirt and being interviewed on TV and by newspaper reporters about the situation of homeless youth in the U.S. I was asked to give a public talk on reproductive health of homeless young women at the local university. My talk was sponsored by the federal Ministry of Families social services agency. The shortened title of my talk became “Infancia Abandonada,” literally translated as abandoned children. There were about fifty people in attendance, with the front two rows occupied by the Venezuelan military in their red berets and gold braid and tassels. It was an interesting cross-cultural immersion experience. Even at the time I realized I was a political pawn in the grand chess game of inter-American relations. They wanted me to highlight how a rich (and arrogant) country like ours can have such a large homeless population, including abandoned children living on our nation’s streets.

The public health and nursing schools located in Yaracuy wanted to establish research ties through me with the university in the U.S. where I work. But since their university was state-run and Chavez became increasingly anti-U.S., those research ties had to be undone. I’ve returned to Venezuela twice since my first visit. On my most recent visit in 2010, it was a vastly different country: rolling electricity blackouts, water stoppages, food shortages and rationing of even basic staples like corneal, and major roads almost impassable by lack of maintenance. There was also a palpable level of anxiety and dis-ease among the Venezuelans, especially in Caracas but also noticeable in other areas of the country I visited. The only other country I have ever been in where I felt a similar level of dis-ease was in the military-run Burma/Myanmar. While poverty levels have reportedly been lowered during Chavez’s fourteen years in office, I was left wondering who exactly was measuring this and how they were measuring it. I was left wondering if there aren’t much worse things than poverty and homelessness….