Today I’m here with 3 mini reviews of non-fiction books related to science and medicine…
It’s All in your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan
Suzanne O’Sullivan is a consultant in neurology in the UK and her book It’s All In Your Head won the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize. This book presents various cases of patients suffering from psychosomatic illnesses that she treated. For those who wonder, “the word psychosomatic refers to physical symptoms that occur for psychological reasons”. Each chapter of the book is devoted to a patient. The book focuses a lot on patients who have seizures and had been previously misdiagnosed as epileptic, whereas their seizures didn’t have an organic cause and were psychosomatic seizures. But there are plenty of other very interesting cases, like the case of a patient who became blind and no doctor could find a cause for her blindness, or the case of a young student who lost use of her hand after a student stood on her hand at university during a lecture – but of course her fracture had healed well and she was supposed to be able to use her hand normally… All the cases mentioned in this book are examples of how the mind can affect the body to the extent of “impairing our ability to function or endangering our health”. This book really demonstrates the power of the mind over the body.
One of the main objectives of this book is to emphasize how taboo psychosomatic illness is in our society today: it is taboo for the general public but also among the medical profession. Doctors often hesitate to give a diagnosis of psychogenic seizures to their patients. People in general feel less compassionate (if they feel any compassion at all) towards people suffering from psychosomatic illness. And, of course, patients don’t usually want to accept such a diagnosis, they feel humiliated, not believed and so on. Even if this book can be a little bit hard at times (there are a lot of technical terms), it is very interesting and very important.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This book is a memoir written by Paul Kalanithi, an American neurosurgeon who died from lung cancer aged 36. Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer when he was about to finish completing his residency training in neurosurgery. He had been married to Lucy, an internist, for several years. Paul and Lucy then decided to get a baby. Cady, their daughter, was born eight months before Paul died.
Paul Kalanithi died while writing this memoir, so the book is unfinished. An Epilogue from Lucy is used as a closure for the book. It is an incredibly moving book, obviously. It is shocking to see how fast everything went. In the first part of the book, In Perfect Health I Begin, Paul focuses on his studies and his training as a neurosurgeon. He examines what made him choose this career, describes his lifelong need to understand what makes life meaningful, his attempts to become what he calls a good surgeon and so on. The second part, Cease Not Till Death, is about living with cancer and the reverse of situation he is experiencing, what it means to become a patient when you are a doctor. Paul kept working as a surgeon for several months after his diagnosis, operating for hours despite being in pain until his cancer didn’t allow him to work anymore. This is a truly inspiring book.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This is the best and the most important book I have read in a very long time. Rebecca Skloot spent 10 years researching and writing this book… This book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, of her cells and of her family. It is divided into 3 parts: “Life”, “Death” and “Immortality”.
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman born from a very poor tobacco farmers family, who died from cervical cancer in 1951 at John Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore. She was 31. Shortly before she died, a sample of her cervical cells was taken from her (without her knowledge) and given to George Gey, a Tissue Culture Researcher at Hopkins who had tried to grow cells outside the human body for more than 30 years. Gey managed to grow Henrietta’s cells and to keep them alive. These cancer cells, known as “HeLa cells”, are the first human immortal cells. Since the early 1950’s, they have been massively produced and sold by various biotech companies, and of course have been used by millions of scientists around the world. The HeLa cells have allowed some crucial advances in medicine (gene mapping, polio vaccine, chemotherapy…) and have helped develop drugs for treating leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and many others.
Henrietta Lack’s family and their anger are also at the heart of this book. Henrietta’s family had not been informed that Henrietta’s cells were still alive and randomly heard about it more than twenty years after her death. Hopkins researchers also used Henrietta’s children for their research, drawing blood from them without explaining them anything. And of course, Henrietta’s family has never had access to health insurance… This is a fascinating book, which abounds with very interesting information about science, cells culture’s history, past and current ethic issues related to human research and debates about human tissues’s ownership. It is also beautifully written. A masterpiece!
It’s All in your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan. Published by Vintage, 2016 (for this paperback edition)
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Published by The Bodley Head, 2016
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Published by Pan Books, 2011 (for this paperback edition)