Since writing and publishing Life Disrupted, I’ve paid special attention to books and anthologies that deal with the patient narrative. (I have a more in-depth exploration of narrative medicine and a list of suggested titles if you’re interested.) This spring I reviewed Everything Changes, a book about young adult cancer patients, and found the similarities between young cancer patients and young adults with chronic illness compelling.
More recently I had the chance to read
Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America, edited by Colleen McKee and Amanda Stiebel. With a forward written by my friend and colleague Jenni Prokopy of ChronicBabe and a submission from one of my favorites, Paula Kamen, I was especially excited to jump into this diverse collection of essays. Here again I found the universal questions and insights that came out of very different experiences with illness and health care to resonate the most.
When I hear the phrase “health care in America,” I instinctively expect a lot of facts and figures: how much chronic disease costs have risen, insurance premiums and co-pays, political debates over mandates or Medicare reimbursements, how many Americans remain uninsured or underinsured. Let’s face it, the system is confusing quagmire of contradiction and disparities, and much of what we read about is analysis or opinion about these issues.
While facts and figures are seminal to health care reform, I have always believed in the equally compelling power of the personal narrative. Regardless of differences in diagnoses, treatments, ethnicity or geography, these women’s stories all reveal frustrations, challenges, and insights that speak to the central question linking these 21 essays together: Are we feeling better yet? As the editors write in the introduction, “To even to begin to answer that question, the patient’s voice has to join the conversation. She can’t be entirely spoken for by charts, case studies, shiny magazine, politicians, physicians, pharmaceutical reps. For genuine healing, we must tell our stories—and hear them—in a way that is honest and real, even when the truth is ugly, unladylike, and sometimes, not even nice.”
It was with that expectation of unflinching narrative that I dove into the essays, and as a patient and a writer, I was not disappointed. I’ve come to expect topics like poverty, racism and health disparities, and inefficiency and bureaucratic stalemates to be a large part of the patient experience and a necessary part of any discussion. However, I was glad to see this (unfortunately all too familiar) terrain handled so well, revealing nuances to these universal problems that remain in my mind.
Terri Griffith’s wry rumination on “free care”—a merry-go-round of pushing papers and passing the buck that left her without therapy for depression and wasted a lot of time and resources, made me clench my teeth in frustration for her. The staggering wait times (up to eight hours) and dilapidated conditions Birgit Nielsen witnessed at a Los Angeles county clinic for women was bad enough; the shocking racism her doctor displayed towards Spanish-speaking immigrants and the preferential treatment her white skin afforded her was worse. Based on these experiences, we certainly have a ways to go in terms of providing quality care to everyone.
In “A Slight Case of Hypomania,” Anita Darcel Talyor writes about living with mental illness and the constant choice between paying for treatment or paying to live her life, between remaining untreated or living in an overly medicated, dulled state. But her personal negotiations give rise to larger questions:
“Sometimes I wonder if normal isn’t a myth, a state of magical realism, a place of the imagination against the backdrop of lies. Is normal a thing of the middle class suburban family? Is it as chic as the gay city dweller? Is it middle American red or coastal blue? Is normal the adjective of the elusive mainstream? Can I be normal with a diagnosis? Is it normal to be educationally elite yet live in poverty? Can I be normal if I am fat?” (58).
Moments like these, when the many universal complexities of the patient experience are laid bare, are the ones that resonate most with me. I’ve heard the policy wonks, I’ve read the Op-Eds, and I’ve and stared at the numbers. They are important, but they don’t get at my core like these moments do. Whether it’s receiving a life-altering diagnosis or a delayed diagnosis, having to choose between personal belief systems and those of the medical establishment, or being privy to the insider survival tricks and processes of cancer treatment, the personal insights these writers provide do much to illustrate where we are—and more importantly, where we have to go.
Some essays speak more directly to the question of “Are we feeling better yet?” than others, and personally those are the ones I enjoyed the most. I started the book wondering if it was merely a foregone conclusion that we can’t really be feeling all that better yet; after all, if the system was working well we wouldn’t need analysis and Op-Eds and consensus talks. But I finished it feeling encouraged. These stories aren't always pleasant or easy to read, and that's exactly why we need them. We can learn from them and draw from them as empowered patients and advocates…and that’s certainly a step in the right direction.