@review ANITA PADDOCK
Reciting Robert Frost in the ICU
By Taylor Prewitt, M.D.
This collection of book reviews on medical literature comes to us from Taylor Prewitt, a retired Fort Smith cardiologist. It is a joy to read, particularly for those interested in the practice of medicine and the drama surrounding it, and how it’s been written about through fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Prewitt opens the section with a quote, “Woe to the person who no longer delighteth in hearing the story of another; for truly that person shall be weary of life itself.” Pretty good quote, isn’t it?
One particular favorite of Prewitt’s is the biography written by Wendy Moore, The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery. In eighteenth century England, grave robbers provided the cadavers for the students Dr. Hunter taught in anatomy class. He was so anxious to obtain the body of a young man who was over eight feet tall, that he bribed an undertaker to remove the body from the casket while mourners were drinking at a tavern. Hunter boiled the body down to a skeleton so he could study the bone structure of this giant who was a victim of a pituitary tumor long before the disease was identified.
Also featured is Florence Nightingale gained fame during the Crimean War aiding wounded British soldiers. She spent twenty months where “She said she had seen Hell and because she had seen Hell, she was set apart.” Two different books, each titled Florence Nightingale , written by Cecil Woodham-Smith and Lytton Strachey provide the rich history of this woman who reformed nursing and lived the rest of her life by taking to her bed and living into her nineties, suffering from obesity and senility.
Another fascinating story is that of Dr. Paul Farmer written by the marvelous non-fiction writer Tracy Kidder. In his book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, the Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, the Man Who Would Cure the World, we meet a man, who at age thirty-five, had obtained his M.D. and a Ph.D. from Harvard, and divided his time between teaching at Harvard while living in a church rectory in a poor neighborhood and practicing medicine for free in Haiti. He went on to obtain funds from the Gates Foundation to combat tuberculosis that had become resistant to drugs in Haiti, Peru, and parts of Russia.
My favorite parts of the book, though, are when Prewitt interjects his own personal anecdotes among the synopses of the books he reviews. He tells us he grew up in a small farm and railroad town in the southeast Arkansas delta. He was the editor of his high school newspaper and didn’t know he had an aptitude for science until he took biology and chemistry courses at the University of Arkansas.
He talks about his father who cautioned, “Don’t let your schoolwork interfere with your education” and “Try to have a little fun every day.” Clearly, Prewitt followed his father’s advice. He practiced internal medicine in Fort Smith from 1969 to 2003. He played tennis, jogged, taught Sunday school classes at the First Methodist Church, cheered the Razorbacks at most every football game, and was a favorite customer at Vivian’s Book Store.
Several years ago, when I first heard the title of this book, I got chill bumps. It was a fantastic title, and I asked Prewitt to explain it to me. He said there were times when he stood at the bedside of an ill patient in the intensive care unit, a patient who seemed unresponsive to any treatments he tried. In an effort to gather his thoughts and decide what to do next, he recited poetry, often those poems written by Robert Frost. This calmed him, helped him think, much like the airplane pilot who is told to wind the clock when he gets in trouble in the air. In other words, stop a moment and calmly decide what to do.
Reading this book is like meeting a stranger on a plane. You immediately like him, and you enjoy the stories he tells about the good books he’s read. You listen, you nod. Maybe you cry or maybe you smile. You savor the delight of hearing a good story.