In the well-worn format of contrasting personal experience with general research, Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain tells of the author’s years-long search for relief from endometriosis pain and the more general problem of women’s pain being dismissed as either exaggerated or all in their heads.
The author makes a great point that women’s pain is dismissed too easily, but the issue may be more complicated than that, namely that, once physicians have ruled out all the causes they can think about (or, more modestly, that they can test), they then declare that the issue is psychological. And there is not much of an incentive to keep searching for the root cause in a system that’s fee-based, and for a patient that is not insured to boot.
The power of the FDA to regulate drugs is regularly touted as the reason why Americans are so well protected against dangerous drugs (although it also creates worrisome delays in approving new drugs) — but the author of The Danger Within Us: America’s Untested, Unregulated Medical Device Industry and One Man’s Battle to Survive It points out that, when it comes to medical devices, including implantable devices, the regulations are astonishingly lax: cursory trials with deplorable designs and imaginative statistical analyses are sufficient, and manufacturers take full advantage of rubber-stamp approvals for “upgrades” to push through all kinds of new devices… And this has a cost to patients, all the more since reporting on adverse effects is slow, systematically impeded by vendors — and to my mind in great need of a good knowledge management specialist.
The author gives a series of solutions in the last chapters, but she seems to think that nothing less than a full reform of the healthcare system in America will help. Since I doubt this will happen anytime soon, I hope that more pragmatic, short-erm fixes can be established. (Why would it be so hard to dictate a small number of guidelines for acceptable risk studies, for instance?)
By the author of Dear American Airlines, which I loved, and Want Not, which I did not, Anatomy of a Miracle manages to bring together the Afghan War, Hurricane Katrina, a reality TV show, and a love story without ever sounding plodding or sensationalistic. It’s quite a feat. From a brother and sister in a small town and a Vietnamese-American couple that owns the convenience store where the paralyzed brother walks again, the story unspools to include both a Vatican investigator and a dedicated VA doctor, all characters with depth and relevance to the story. It’s a wonderful, rich, different novel.
The author of Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs that Changed Our Mind has suffered from bipolar illness her whole life and asserts in the introduction that she is a practitioner as well as a patient — although she is a psychologist, not an MD nor a scientist, which sometimes shows. Her book combines her own experiences (sad, but not too interesting to me) with a solid history of treatments and drugs for mental illnesses (the best part of the book) and rants against the sorry state of our knowledge about mental illness (understandable, but not too useful, and not always entirely coherent, as when she raves against blindly prescribing drugs for which we don’t know why they work while also pursuing completely untested treatment with psilocybin or MDMA for herself).
The best (and main) focus of the book, the history of treatments for serious mental illness, is certainly discouraging, since most available treatments have serious side effects, certainly when taken for long periods of time, and unknown action mechanisms. No wonder that patients are hungry for better solutions!
Anesthesia has become so safe that we hardly think about it or its practitioners, that most patients only meet for a few minutes before the procedure. The author of Counting Backwards: A Doctor’s Notes on Anesthesia is one of the almost-invisible anesthesiologists, and he has much to say about what he does to keep patients alive, and pain-free. Interestingly, no one, including the good doctor, really understands how anesthesia works, but he has plenty of stories about what can go wrong, as well as the anguish he has to manage each and every time in both patients and parents (he is a pediatric anesthesiologist). There are some awkward repeats, and he made me cringe a bit each time he tells a story of asking a teenager for a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s name pre-op, but the stories are for the most part entertaining rather than cringe-inducing.
Miracle Cure: The Creation of Antibiotics and the Birth of Modern Medicine focuses just as much on the discovery of antibiotics as on the complex story of how the pharmaceutical industry managed to manufacture them in large amounts. Right from the start, the author describes men (almost all men) with large egos that were as interested in science as they were in pursuing fame (and lots of money for the industry men). And some of the science was downright dodgy.
By the way, the one woman in the story, Mary Hunt, found the rotting melon that gave rise to the penicillin strain used to this day. Hurrah for farmers’ markets.
Despite the author’s mostly lively prose, and her sense of humor, Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis can be a bit of a slog to read for non-professional scientists and I certainly flipped some pages rather fast in the most technical chapters. Still, it’s extraordinary to think that tuberculosis, which is the most-prevalent infectious disease in the world, gets so little publicity and is so poorly understood by medicine — probably because (a) it strikes mostly poor countries and (b) it has managed to survive for so long because its mechanism is complicated!
Be prepared to overturn some of what you thought you knew about the disease (for one thing, it’s not all about coughing, that’s only pulmonary TB) and to be horrified at the ways of long-dead scientists (Koch injected his much younger fiancee with his attempt at a vaccine; she married him anyway!) My favorite story in the book is that of rats that have been trained to sniff sputum samples (African pushed rats, don’t try this at home).