This book, The Best of the Best American Science Writing is just chock-full of what we love on this blog (in case you missed it, that’s science and writing)! If you missed my review of the two essays selected from the year 2002, check it out here – you can see links for the reviews from other prior years at the bottom of this post.
The articles selected from the year 2003 are “Common Ground”, a medical narrative by Danielle Ofri, an MD/PhD and faculty member at NYU School of Medicine, and “The Melody Lingers On” by poet and writer Floyd Skloot, a three time Pushcart Prize winning author. These articles are the hardest to find online – hopefully you’re able to read them. Both are also relatively short and to the point, which I liked after coming across a few very long articles in this book.
Ofri’s “Common Ground” is as much about the ethics of doctor-patient relationships as it is about the ethics of women’s reproductive choice. Ofri’s narrative is about her time working for a Catholic Medical Center – she is required to send patients to their insurance companies for abortion referrals and not participate in the referral process. However when one patient comes in, alone, desperate, and seeking help to find a safe abortion provider, Ofri breaks the rules and helps the woman find somewhere reputable to go; this experience encourages Ofri to form a close relationship with the patient throughout the process of her abortion and, at the end of the narrative, Ofri reflects on why she felt so personally compelled to help the woman receive safe care.
Despite the essay dealing with some very hefty ethical issues (“This Catholic medical institution might choose not to perform abortions, but what about my ethical duty to provide the care my patient needed? Sending a distressed patient to an 800 telephone number would not hold water under the Hippocratic oath.”) the story itself is decidedly unobtrusive. Ofri spends most of her time immersing us in her world – her thoughts and feelings as well as the imagery of the small town she’s in. The ethical issues can fade into the background, an undercurrent as you read a pleasant and fast-paced narrative about life; it is only for short moments that Ofri brings the ethical issues to the forefront of the conversation. I found that refreshing – I could think about the ethical issues on my own terms, without Ofri lambasting me or telling me what to think – and still enjoy a good story with appropriate, if not spectacular, writing.
The story itself revolves around the doctor-patient relationship that develops between these two female characters; it is a touching story of human-centric medicine, even of female bonding. Ofri’s feelings are so clear in both the imagery and her thoughts that I found myself really identifying with her as a character despite the straightforward language of the piece. I would recommend this work for those interested in seeing yet another perspective on the abortion debate, and for those fascinated by the medical profession. If you’re someone who can’t stomach even the idea of an abortion, this essay is definitely not for you.
Floyd Skloot’s essay, “The Melody Lingers On”, is about his mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease and her slow loss of her memories but retention of melody and song. Skloot’s piece is touching – a mostly reflective piece that dabbles briefly in the science behind why his mother might remember song but not words, Skloot is more interested in evoking emotion, raising awareness, and reminiscing than pushing an ethical, scientific, or social agenda. It is an homage to the woman his mother was before her disease and to the woman she has become toward the end of her life, with both the joys and hardships therein. As you might expect from such a distinguished and celebrated author, Skloot’s piece is really well-written with great pacing and beautiful language. He writes of patience and love and re-learning to connect; the piece is about so much more than science or Alzheimer’s, even if those topics both frame the overall article.
I would recommend Skloot’s essay to anyone interested in learning more about Alzheimer’s more from the human perspective than the neurological perspective. To those very nervous about reading a piece on Alzheimer’s, as many of these articles are very sad, I would say that Skloot’s piece is right for you – the piece does have sad elements, as any kind of story about loss does, but it’s beautifully entangled with joy and new kinds of love. Skloot writes a balanced piece that is very moving while still being a celebration of his mother more than a tear-inducing mess about all she’s lost. While I hesitate to say that Skloot suggests his mother’s dementia is a positive, he certainly looks on the bright side when he can about the new ways he’s found to communicate with her and the moments of joy she’s recently experienced.