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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, July 7, 2002

These Authors Face Serious Illness With Humor, Grace

"Lend Me A Heart" was printed on signs, brochures, and even workers' t-shirts at the West Side license branch when I recently renewed my driver's license. I made sure that I walked out the door with the red heart on my new driver's license that indicates I'm an organ donor. Having just finished an anguished memoir by a heart attack victim, I decided I could do no less.

An Arrow Through the Heart: One Woman's Story of Life, Love, and Surviving a Near-Fatal Heart Attack by Deborah Daw Heffernan (The Free Press, 2002).

Forty-four year old Deborah had led an exemplary life. She did yoga and swam, cooked healthy meals, had good blood pressure and cholesterol scores, and was a happily married DINK (dual income, no kids) living in Boston with a weekend home on a lake in Maine. Her job as vice-president of a top corporate training enterprise kept her constantly on the road, but she enjoyed the challenge.

When Deborah had a massive heart attack, she "lost half her heart," suffering permanent serious damage to her left ventricle. The medical community couldn't explain why it happened but they did their best to keep her alive. This book covers in thankful and honest detail the medical and emotional events of that first year after the attack.

Considering that heart disease kills more women every year than lung, breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers combined, women can't afford not to read this book.

Losing My Mind; an Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer's by Thomas DeBaggio (The Free Press, 2002).

When Tom DeBaggio, owner of a successful herb growing business and author of three books, turned fifty-nine in 1999, he discovered that he had Alzheimer's. Here is his brave testimony before the disease stole his mind.

Well-edited, this work consists of Tom's chronicle of the disease's effects, interspersed with childhood memories, ruminations about why this happened to him, and excerpts from medical reports and articles. There is very little that modern medicine can do for him, short of prescribing Aricept and massive doses of Vitamin E. As did Dylan Thomas, he rages "against the dying of the light."

Unless by Carol Shields (Fourth Estate, 2002).

Canadian writer Carol Shields, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Stone Diaries, wrote her latest while struggling with breast cancer. In it she unflinchingly bares her soul.

Unless is a novel whose plot doesn't even mention cancer.

The protagonist is a writer named Reta whose twenty-year-old daughter has "dropped out" and is panhandling on a Toronto street corner. Reta must keep her own equilibrium while trying to get a lifeline to her wounded daughter.

Underneath this plot device, though, we know that Shields is talking about the terrible thing that has actually happened to her - terminal cancer.

Unless deals with aching to change something seemingly unchangeable, with feeling and saying whatever you've always wanted to say instead of what you're supposed to feel and say. Her honest comments on being a woman writer are liberating as well as enlightening to read.

For two other recent accounts of serious illness, pick up Cancer Schmancer by Fran Drescher (the Nanny) or Lucky Man by Michael J. Fox. Both of these celebrities are able to use humor to fight life-threatening battles.

And finally, for a look from the other side of the examining table, read Complications: a Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande (Henry Holt, 2002).

Son of two Ohio doctors, and a Harvard Medical School graduate and Chief Surgical Resident at a major hospital, Gawande is very skeptical about calling modern medicine a science. He elaborates on the difficulty of making accurate medical diagnoses, even with all the test and procedures available. His further assertion that, statistically, medical and surgical mistakes do happen, is bound to be less than good news for the involved patients.

Concerning his chosen vocation of surgery, Gwande stresses that cutting open the human body is a courageous act and that surgeons he knows are on the whole self-questioning, hard working, and resourceful.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.