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Posts tagged ‘biography’

Review of American Saint

51DSeMoivLLAmerican Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton
Written by Joan Barthel
Reviewed by Gregory J. Wilkin
New York Journal of Books

“Characters like these, and scenes from the siege of New York, as well as the flirtation between Elizabeth and the handsome Antonio Filicchi, along with a very good death . . . all make this perfect fodder for a movie. It’s also perfectly suited to a book.”

Joan Barthel, whose earlier work dealt with murder cases in Connecticut and California that only an act of God could keep from turning into movies, seems to have a winner here with her timely and largely adulatory biography of Mother Elizabeth Seton.

After watching Meryl Streep’s despairing turn as Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and Barbara Jefford’s as the enragingly venomous mother superior in Judy Dench’s Philomena (as I’m confident He did, on a very big screen), Our Lord may want to get this book made into a movie Himself.

Publicity for the book emphasizes Seton’s wealthy upbringing, her political connections in the young republic, the sad tale of her husband’s early death in Italy, and the way she “resisted male clerical control of her religious order, as nuns are doing today.”

The life Barthels recounts counts in different ways for different folks: Maya Angelou in her foreword to the volume says “Seton’s life and achievements are proof that courage is the most important of all the virtues.”

True enough, Seton had to fight off the harshly overbearing Father Superior, John David, but in doing so, she worked closely with two other French priests and Bishop John Carroll. Courage it took, but to bill her as an early Catholic flouter-of-male-privilege is certainly to engage in a rather crass kind of book mongering.

In her introduction, Barthels situates her biography in the fraught context of the current administrative dispute about American nuns. The Vatican “doctrinal assessment,” which Sister Maureen Fiedler called on NPR “a hostile takeover,” will take five years to be prepared “and no one knows,” Barthels writes, “what will happen in the end.” In one of the least successful segues she pauses, indents, and gives us: “But Elizabeth Seton was there at the beginning.”

These beginnings bring out the best in our author: the early days in the Bayley family in New York are vivid and convincing, full of period detail and useful cultural background. As the young widow and mother takes her charges to Emmitsburg, the narration begins to rely on her letters, at one point quite a few of them rather wearily strung together. But some of this was heroic, loving effort by Seton herself, carried on despite fevers and worsening tuberculosis.

This is a lady who went through a lot. The accounts of the death of her daughters show her face to face with doubt:

“‘Eternity’ had long been her beloved word, her hope and belief. Now she was “uncertain of reunion.” She was kneeling at Anna’s grave when she saw a large, ugly snake stretching itself on the dried grass. Elizabeth was desolate, seeing Anna as ‘the companion of worms and reptiles! And the beautiful soul, where?’”

The takeaway here: doubt for the faithful, even for the saints, is one’s daily bread. Despite it all, Elizabeth Seton keeps her wits and her charm.

Read entire review and more at NEW YORK JOURNAL OF BOOKS

Free Love & Free Clinics

Excerpt from biography of Dr. Arnold Leff.
Paging Dr. Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest.

Free Love & Free Clinics

By the time Captain Leff arrived at Wright Patterson Air Base for his last year of military service, he was a changed man. He didn’t continue fighting city hall on base, but slowly worked his way into creating an alternative city hall in the way medicine was provided in the public sector. In addition to working in the outpatient clinic from 8 to 5 at Wright Patterson, he also jumped in feet first with the fledgling Cincinnati Free Clinic in the evening. That involvement turned him around to wearing longer hair and becoming more enmeshed in the counterculture of the time.

The Cincinnati Free Clinic provided a 24 hour suicide prevention line and support for people dealing with issues of drug abuse, V.D., and birth control. It ws based on the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco that had been started by Dr. Dave Smith.

The Cincinnati clinic was instrumental in changing the laws concerning parental consent so that young people could get the confidential treatment and health education they needed. All the docs working at the free clinics were volunteers. They provided countless hours to public health services that most communities now take for granted with their county hospitals and clinics.

Dr. Leff lived in a commune on McCormick Place in Cincinnati and commuted to the base to work during the day. He grew long hair and a beard and hung out with all his old friends to listen to music at the Family Owl. He was welcomed back into the fold, a composite of musicians, hippies and anti-war activists. Few of them realized the risks he had taken to stop the illegal bombing in Laos and his battles within the military for truth and accountability.

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Paging Doctor Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest

The following excerpt is from Paging Doctor Leff: Pride, Patriotism & Protest. Paging Doctor Leff is the biography of an idealistic boy from New York who joined the Civil Air Patrol for God and country and never looked back. Dr. Arnie Leff, MD has fought many wars, overseas and at home. He stood up to his superiors in the Air Force during Viet Nam; locked horns with corporations and state bureaucracies as health commissioner of Cincinnati; jumped into the trenches at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic; and has pulled no punches with his often controversial opinions about drugs, euthanasia, health care and medical marijuana. He is presently a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.

***

In 1986, people were just starting to feel their way through the dark when it came to understanding and treating AIDS.

Dr. Leff, who had been in public health for over 20 years (as an officer in Viet Nam, director of the Cincinnati Public Health Department and Cincinnati free clinics) decided to go into private practice for the first time in his life. This was no easy leap of faith and involved a different kind of personal responsibility than he was used to.

“I found a doctor on Seabright Avenue in the city of Santa Cruz, Dr. Blackwell, who at 80 years of age was still running a large geriatric practice. He was going to retire soon and let me use his office in the afternoons,” Arnie says. “Before I even left the health department, a man named Ray Martinez walked in my door and said, ‘I hear you’re going into private practice. I want to be your first patient.’ Ray had AIDS, and he became my first patient with HIV.”

After Dr. Blackwell retired, Dr. Leff took on many of his elderly patients and an ever-increasing number of people with AIDS. “I became the ‘AIDS doctor’ and was in the trenches for over eight years,” says Dr. Leff. “It was like a war. People got tested, discovered they were HIV Positive, and went through hell trying to stay alive and figure out what worked and what didn’t.”

In those days there was little information about AIDS, but Dr. Leff scoured the literature and spoke with everyone who knew anything about the disease. “I had to learn it all,” he says. “The first report I saw was in the New England Journal of Medicine about Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia. These two diseases are very uncommon except in immune compromised people, and the Kaposi sarcoma was uncommon period. At first they thought it was a gay related immune disorder and called it GRID (Gay Related Immune Disorder). It took about five years for everybody to figure out how big the problem was and that it was not restricted to gay men, even though they were the primary people affected in the U.S. at that time. It wasn’t until about 1984 or ’85 that we had a blood test to identify it.

“So, I had a lot of public health background and obtained what knowledge of the disease I could, but had no clinical experience in treating it. In fact, I had little clinical knowledge at all. I was really jumping into boiling oil when I took this on. It was like I was a baby thrown to the wolves, but in this case the wolves took me in, protected me, and helped me learn what I needed to know to survive and help them survive, as long as possible. It was quite a shift from seeing 20 people a month [his last major clinical experience, when he saw police officers in Cincinnati] to 20 people a day.

“In the beginning of the epidemic, it was primarily oncologists who saw AIDS patients, because it manifested with Kaposi sarcoma, which is a cancer. Now, that is rarely seen. After a brief period, however, the oncologists passed on their AIDS patients because they didn’t know how to treat all the other underlying symptoms. There were also a few infectious disease docs in town treating the disease, but a number of gay men had problems with their attitudes and bedside manner. Because of these realities and concerns, I became the defacto ‘AIDS doc’ in town. I kept up on the literature and frequently spoke with Paul Volberding, who is now a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, but at the time was the director of the AIDS clinic at San Francisco General.”

“We had all these young patients whose immune systems were shot, but were otherwise healthy,” Dr. Leff says. “The dying process for these patients was very difficult. We had hospice services at the time, but they were learning along with the rest of us about what worked and what didn’t. During those years, I believe I made more referrals to hospice than any doctor in the county, other than oncologists.

“The physical challenges were staggering. Histoplasmosis is a fungal disease that occurs in the Midwest. It is like a flu. Most people get it, don’t feel well for awhile, and then recover. Candida is a disseminating yeast that can effect healthy people, but is not life threatening. For people with AIDS, both Histoplasmosis and Candida were deadly. We also saw them picking up meningitis from a fungal disease, as well as lymphomas and central nervous system lesions (toxoplasmosis). To top it all off, many of those afflicted also developed dementias.

“I remember one patient who was admitted to the psychiatric unit at the hospital because he had HIV dementia. He couldn’t control himself or his bodily functions. He was a mess. We got him into a halfway house, but the mental health people refused to put him in their system. They said they couldn’t handle AIDS dementia because it was physical and not psychological. I told them the guy was clearly psychotic and had no place else to go. The nursing homes wouldn’t take him because he was psychotic, and the mental health folks wouldn’t take him because AIDS was his primary diagnosis. He wound up staying as an inpatient at Dominican Hospital for four and a half months. It was tragic; a young man living, most of the time able to ambulate, in the hospital for over four months, and dying there, too.

“That was some of the war-like quality the epidemic presented. I felt like I had to beat down some barriers, even if it took force. I spent eight years teaching every doctor in town, every specialist, nurse, x-ray tech, and health professional I could speak with, about AIDS. Some didn’t like it, some walked out, and some refused to treat them. It was frustrating and sad. I told them the truth that yes, they could possibly die from coming in contact with an infected needle, but that was already true in their profession; it was part of the risk they took every day already. I’ve had four or five needle sticks in my career. It was scary. I got myself tested again and again and again, to make sure.

“I was having enough trouble dealing with all the deaths and loss by itself, let alone having to continually confront a system that didn’t want to budge. I was having, on average, one patient a week dying from the disease. I probably had 50 or more deaths in one year. Some of those were geriatric patients as well, but it was enough to warrant a significant support system. When I first went into practice, there had only been one person who died of AIDS in the entire county.”

“People didn’t understand,” said Dr. Leff. “I was watching people die, and often there was nothing I could do about it. We had no treatment, no cure. It was the first major epidemic since Polio, which died out in the ‘60s, though in some areas it has now resurfaced. I saw myself as a soldier in the war against disease, and the reality was that there were casualties on both sides. The docs, the patients, the nurses, were all affected emotionally, if not physically. There continue to be casualties to this day.”

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