You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor’s Stories of Life, Death, and in Between
- By Daniela Lamas
- Little, Brown and Co.
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
- May 1, 2018
The physician-author's tremendous writing skill elevates this winning work.
Most people have close friends or relatives who’ve faced important medical decisions. Too many people have had to do so alone; others have been part of a group. The good news is that choices are available. The better news is that they include options that are likely to prolong a life threatened by a serious condition.
The nine essays in this valuable book are not clinical studies. Though they deal in sufficient detail with the science of the individual health crises that needed to be met, the principal focus is on the human cost of pursuing a promising solution and the unforeseen trade-offs of successful surgery or other treatments — “successful” often being subjective.
A fine medical journalist as well as an experienced physician, author Daniela Lamas exploits these two skillsets admirably. The common denominator is her talent as an interviewer. This, as well as her curiosity and her commitment to healing, has allowed Lamas to enter the harrowing emotional journeys of her patient-subjects. They have trusted her with their stories as well as a portion of their care.
Lamas is their voice in an era of amazing strides in medical technology that seems to promise a utopian future. She offers good news wrapped in true-life cautionary tales. [Doctor of physical therapy.]
These stories involve patients whose stays in acute-care facilities often lasted months. Staying alive meant leaving a normal life: being tied to machines that helped them breathe, aided circulation, or helped flush their blood of impurities.
The subjects often needed ever-changing regimens of drugs, some with terrible side effects and unintended consequences. Others forced themselves into physical therapy routines that consumed their waking hours, leaving little time for other endeavors or pleasures.
Lamas transmits her keen awareness of the extent to which medical professionals are both in and out of touch with their patients:
“For my colleagues and me, the time in hospital when we intersect with patients…is generally all we know of their trajectories. Perhaps we see them if they get sick enough to return to the unit and if that readmission coincides with our time on service. But we rarely have an opportunity to follow them out through long-term acute care hospitals, infections, delirium, readmissions, and maybe, if they are lucky, back home to a life that looks something like what they left.”
Because she has approached these patients as an empathetic journalist, Lamas has had some degree of intimacy with their hopes and fears, their courage and exhaustion. She has come to know the family members who will have their lives changed by the condition of their loved one.
Each of the stories told here is unforgettable, in large part because Lamas is such a fine writer and cares so much about getting her prose right.
Readers will remember Nancy, whose doctor announced that an aneurysm once held in check by medication “had now grown large enough that the benefits of surgery to repair it outweighed the risk.” It was a complicated, massive surgery followed by a difficult recovery. The resulting post-traumatic stress required extensive therapy. A life has been saved, but its quality diminished.
Lamas has written and arranged a series of gems. The essays and characters seem almost to interact, providing a deeply textured mosaic of life before, during, and after major medical interventions. The author’s voice enriches the material and may fortify those facing their own health crises. But, throughout, readers are reminded that while technology can save life, it can’t always preserve its quality.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of 20 books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom. His reviews appear in a wide variety of regional and national publications.