Books Good Books

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.08.26 PMLately I’ve been reading a lot. It must be all the time I spend on airplanes and in hotels. Most of my focus has been on books about the patient’s experience, including books by Amanda Bennett and Laurie Edwards (I recommend both authors). Last weekend I read Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality. My wife bought it for me. If you’re not familiar with Christopher Hitchens, he was a best selling author, amazing essayist, literary critic and contributing editor at Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, Slate, the Times Literary Supplement, the Nation, and more. He was an amazing writer.

In June 2010, while on a book tour, Hitchens fell ill and was eventually diagnosed with esophageal cancer. At that time, as he says, he was transported from “the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” Mortality is an amazing account of his experience and perspective as a cancer patient.

Unfortunately, amazing as it is, the story is incomplete. Hitchens died before finishing the book. So we are left with 80 pages of insights, and then a few pages of thought starters that would have become fully developed thoughts had he lived long enough to get them down on paper.

Here’s a taste of how Hutchens portrayed his experience with cancer and chemotherapy. In this case, he is talking about the common tendency to talk about cancer patients as “battling” or “struggling against” cancer.

“Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.” (Mortality, p.7)

It is a pleasure to experience Hitchens’ sharp mind through this incredible narrative. For those of us who work in the world of healthcare, I highly recommend Mortality. It just might bring us closer to an understanding of those who live in the land of malady.

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