The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Medical Miracles and Other
By Sallie Tisdale
2003/01 - Beard Books
1587981645 - Paperback - Reprint - 272 pp.
Extraordinarily powerful and superbly written, this book has been widely acclaimed as a major work of popular science. It won an American Health Book Award in 1986.
This gripping and provocative book looks at the modern hospital with a probing, intimate approach. Written by a registered nurse, it tells the dramatic, poignant real-life stories of both patients and caregivers caught up in the mysterious cycle of wellness and sickness. She is puzzled by the fascinating contradictions and paradoxes-the dubious miracles of modern medicine. Despite the panoply of high-tech technology, we cannot escape the feeling that medicine retains its primal roots of sorcery and that we are all its apprentices.
It deals with the real-life stories of patients and care givers caught in the cycle of wellness and sickness and highlights the contradictions and paradoxes of modern medical miracles.
From the back cover blurb:
This gripping and provocative book looks at the modern hospital with a probing, intimate approach. Written by a registered nurse, it tells the dramatic, poignant real-life stories of both patients and caregivers caught up in the mysterious cycle of wellness and sickness. Their struggles are often heroic, sometimes tragic. Sallie Tisdale challenges our understanding of humanity, life, and death, as we delve into the psyches of both patients and medical staff. She is puzzled by the fascinating contradictions and paradoxes --- the dubious miracles of modern medicine. Despite the panoply of high-technology, we cannot escape the feeling that medicine retains its primal roots of sorcery and that we are all its apprentices.
Extraordinarily powerful and superbly written, this book has been widely acclaimed as a major work of popular science.
From Nightingale's Healthcare News, Volume 2, Number 1, February/March
An earlier edition of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" won an American Health Book Award in 1986. The book has been recognized as an outstanding book on popular science. Tisdale brings to her subject of the wide nd engrossing field of health and illness the perspective, as well as the special sympathies and sensitivities, of a registered nurse. She is an exceptionally skilled writer. Again and again, her descriptions of ill individuals and images of illnesses such as cancer and meningitis make a lasting impression. Tisdale accomplishes the tricky business of bringing the reader to an understanding of what persons experience when they are ill; and in doing this, to understand more about the nature of illness as well. Her style and aim as a writer are like that of a medical or science journalist for leading major newspaper, say the "New York Times" or "Los Angeles Times." To this informative, readable style is added the probing interest and concern of the philosopher trying to shed some light on one of the central and most unsettling aspects of human existence. In this insightful, illuminating, probing exploration of the mystery of illness, Tisdale also outlines the limits of the effectiveness of treatments and cures, even with modern medicine's store of technology and drugs. These are often called "miracles" of modern medicine. But from this author's perspective, with the most serious, life-threatening, illnesses, doctors and other health-care professionals are like sorcerer's trying to work magic on them. They hope to bring improvement, but can never be sure what they do will bring it about. Tisdale's intent is not to debunk modern medicine, belittle its resources and ways, or suggest that the medical profession holds out false hopes. Her intent is do report on the mystery of serious illness as she has witnessed it and from this, imagined what it is like in her varied work as a registered nurse. She also writes from her own experiences in being chronically ill when she was younger and the pain and surgery going with this.
She writes, "I want to get at the reasons for the strange state of amnesia we in the health professions find ourselves in. I want to find clues to my weird experiences, try to sense the nature of being sick." The amnesia of health professionals is their state of mind from the demands placed on them all the time by patients, employers, and society, as well as themselves, to cure illness, to save lives, to make sick people feel better. Doctors, surgeons, nurses, and other health-care professionals become primarily technicians applying the wonders of modern medicine. Because of the volume of patients, they do not get to spend much time with any one or a few of them. It's all they can do to apply the prescribed treatment, apply more of it if it doesn't work the first time, and try something else if this treatment doesn't seem to be effective. Added to this is keeping up with the new medical studies and treatments. But Tisdale stepped out of this problem-solving outlook, can-do, perfectionist mentality by opting to spend most of her time in nursing homes, where she would be among old persons she would see regularly, away from the high-charged atmosphere of a hospital with its "many medical students, technicians, administrators, and insurance review artists." To stay on her "medical toes," she balanced this with working occasional shifts in a nearby hospital. In her hospital work, she worked in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), intensive care unit (ICU), a burn center, and in a surgery room. From this combination of work with the infirm, ill, and the latest medical technology and procedures among highly-skilled professionals, Tisdale learned that "being sick is the strangest of states." This is not the lesson nearly all other health-care workers come away with. For them, sick persons are like something that has to be "fixed." They're focused on the practical, physical matter of treating a malady. Unlike this author, they're not focused consciously on the nature of pain and what the patient is experiencing. The pragmatic, results-oriented medical profession is focused on the effects of treatment. Tisdale brings into the picture of health care and seriously-ill patients all of what the medical profession in its amnesia, as she called it, overlooks.
Simply in describing what she observes, Tisdale leads those in the medical profession as well as other interested readers to see what they normally overlook, what they normally do not see in the business and pressures of their work. She describes the beginning of a hip-replacement operation, the surgeon "takes the scalpel and cuts--the top of the hip to a third of the way down the thigh--and cuts again through the globular yellow fat, and deeper. The resident follows with a cautery, holding tiny spraying blood vessels and burning them shut with an electric current. One small, throbbing arteriole escapes, and his glasses and cheek are splattered." One learns more about what is actually going on in an operation from this and following passages than from seeing one of those glimpses of operations commonly shown on TV. The author explains the illness of meningitis, "The brain becomes swollen with blood and tissue fluid, its entire surface layered with pus...The pressure in the skull increases until the winding convolutions of the brain are flattened out...The spreading infection and pressure from the growing turbulent ocean sitting on top of the brain cause permanent weakness and paralysis, blindness, deafness...." This dramatic depiction of meningitis brings together medical facts, symptoms, and effects on the patient. Tisdale does this repeatedly to present illness and the persons whose lives revolve around it from patients and relatives to doctors and nurses in a light readers could never imagine, even those who are immersed in this world.
Tisdale's main point is that the miracles of modern medicine do not unquestionably end the miseries of illness, or even unquestionably alleviate them. As much as they bring some relief to ill individuals and sometimes cure illness, in many cases they bring on other kinds of pains and sorrows. Tisdale reminds readers that the mystery of illness does, and always will, elude the miracle of medical technology, drugs, and practices. Part of the mystery of the paradoxes of treatment and the elusiveness of restored health for ill persons she focuses on is "simply the mystery of illness. Erosion, obviously, is natural. Our bodies are essentially entropic." This is what many persons, both among the public and medical professionals, tend to forget. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" serves as a reminder that the faith and hope placed in modern medicine need to be balanced with an awareness of the mystery of illness which will always be a part of human life.
Sallie Tisdale, the winner of several literary awards, is the author of four nonfiction books, including, most recently, Stepping Westward. Her outspoken personal exploration of sexuality, Talk Dirty to Me, was published in 1994. Ms. Tisdale worked as a registered nurse from 1983 until 1990. During this time, she drew upon her nursing experiences for her book, Harvest Moon: A Portrait of a Nursing Home (1987); in it she portrays an adult care facility in the pacific Northwest, describing in particular the bonds between staff members and residents.
Ms. Tisdale has contributed to numerous publications, including Vogue, The New York Times, Harper's, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. She writes a column for Salon, the online magazine.
Ms. Tisdale received the James T. Phelan Award in 1986, and a national Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1989. She lives in the Northwest.
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