Samuel Johnson observed, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” A life-threatening illness doesn’t quite rise to the level of a hanging, but it does tend to inspire serious reflection. For some, it inspires enough of it to motivate the writing of a memoir. Perhaps they believe that the fruits of all their reflection could benefit others and/or that writing down what happened could bolster their own legacy. These essays often are interesting, moving and insightful; since we’re all at risk of major illness, these memoirs continue to appeal to readers.
My own interest in the subject stems from an unexpected rendezvous with illness that required open-heart surgery four years ago. Since then, I have also written the first draft of a memoir that will hopefully be informative and helpful to those facing a similar journey.
While going through my own writing process, I’ve read a number of books written by both physicians and laymen about the course of their illnesses. Some recent patient memoirs likely to interest anesthesiologists include Open Heart by Elie Wiesel, The Sanctuary of Illness by Thomas Larson and Heart, a double memoir by Dick Cheney and his cardiologist, Jonathan Reiner.
Each writer brings his own unique perspective to illness. For Wiesel, an urgent five-vessel CABG brought forth a surge of reflections on his life, along with doubts about having done enough both for those who perished and for those who survived the Holocaust. He recalls poignant episodes, like a “nocturnal journey in the snow,” during which his father “wanted me to accept a portion of his miserable bread ration, pretending that he was not hungry. I used the same ploy. Each of us wishing to offer the other one more moment of survival.” After recuperating from bypass surgery but still feeling fatigue and pain, Mr. Wiesel concludes, “My life? I go on breathing from minute to minute, from prayer to prayer.”
Thomas Larson suffered three heart attacks over a five-year stretch. A journalist, memoirist and writing teacher, Larson records the events and emotional toll of his illness as it takes its course. For most of the book, he writes about his own thoughts and feelings but gets to “the sanctuary my illness provides … once I understand my heart disease as relational, as having happened to Suzanna [his wife] and me.” That’s a significant insight for others to keep in mind as well. An illness affects not just the patient but also his or her loved ones.
In Heart, Cheney and Reiner collaborate to produce a dual-perspective narrative of the progression and treatment of coronary artery disease, with alternating sections written about the same events by the patient and his doctor. Dick Cheney suffered through a series of health crises, starting with a heart attack at age 37, while running for Congress the first time, and culminating in a heart transplant 34 years later. During that time, our ability to deliver lifesaving intervention for coronary artery disease and heart failure stayed just ahead of the advance of Cheney’s disease. Reiner recounts how diagnostic methods and treatment evolved, his feelings while treating the vice president and the special security measures and stress involved. Cheney describes how he managed to serve at stressful, high-responsibility jobs despite his illness. Together the two accounts combine into an intriguing and informative narrative.
Reading about the lessons learned by other doctors and patients while suffering and recuperating from serious illness can help us better understand its impact. That, in turn, can increase our empathy and effectiveness in treating our patients. And if fate deals a blow to our own health, we can utilize the knowledge gleaned from the experience of others to guide ourselves.