August 18, 2010

Best American Medical Writing 2009

Unlike the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009, this volume focuses on the human aspects of medicine rather than the scientific. That isn't to say there isn't science, but there aren't the mind-blowing ideas of the other volume, such as how life may have started in ice.

The best pieces in the collection show how dysfunctional the medical system currently is (Tom McGrath, "My Daughter's $29,000 Appendectomy"; Harold Pollack, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare"). There are plenty of personal struggles, including two physicians' encounters with drug addiction. The first involves an anesthesiologist (Jason Zengerle, "Going Under"); the second follows the career arc of an AIDS physician. This latter article (David France, "Another AIDS Casualty") and the one before it provide the history and the current state of HIV/AIDS in this country. Both are eye-opening in different ways: it's hard to imagine that at the height of the AIDS crisis, not even two decades ago, a third of the beds in St. Vincent's in NYC contained dying AIDS patients; "Apartheid" reports on the evolution of the AIDS epidemic in this country and the brewing health crisis in the South.

Kevin Baker's "Mind Bomb" follows the journalist's struggle to find out his own Huntington's disease genetic status. The article makes it clear how important genetic counselors are and how fraught applying genomic advances will be. There were personal stories about struggles with cancer, and Sharon Begley's "We Fought Cancer...And Cancer Won", which details the inadequacies of decades of cancer research and treatment. "Contagious Cancer" about the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease would have fit in well in the Science and Nature volume. Oliver Sack's almost obligatory piece catalogs and reviews insanity.

This is the first year I've read the science/medicine entries of the Best American series. I'll certainly be returning to them again next year.

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