Book Club Reflection: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

21 Jul

I feel like I’m perpetually apologizing for how long it takes me to write these reflections but I love doing them. Not only do they get the most hits for my blog, it’s a good way for me to review the book one last time after my book review and put our discussions in a more logical order. Well, what’s logical to me at least.

We thought this was a slightly odd choice for a book club selection. There’s never as much to talk about for non-fiction books as there is for fiction titles. It’s hard to refute what someone does or says in non-fiction like you can in fiction. However, it’s a current bestseller, though we’re not exactly sure why. A lot of best sellers make you want to get up and tell everyone you see how life changing the book was and how you’re now inspired to do X or Z or how it’s changed your perspective on Y. But not this book. Don’t get me wrong, it was interesting and well written. It was easy to digest in short segments, much like short magazine articles. However, I’m not raving about it. If someone asked me for a book recommendation now, this would not be it. I was kind of neutral on the book and most of our members were as well. There were a few fans, but they were not the majority.

One of the questions in the back of the book asked us to consider the reliability of Cahalan as a storyteller. In truth, she had to do as much research to write about her journey as she would have needed to do on an event she wasn’t alive for. Luckily she was in near to people who remembered the time, but her research skills are commendable.

Another question from the book asked why the division into three parts and fifty-three chapters was meaningful. One of our members suggested that the three parts were like the three parts of the brain Cahalan addresses, as detailed on page 42 of our copies (Chapter 8); Frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and the brain stem. We likened the short chapters to the articles Cahalan is used to writing and suspect that this is a comfort zone of writing for her.

This book made us all feel vulnerable; like we could become deathly ill tomorrow and never recover unless we’re lucky to have access to some of the country’s top doctors. And the scary thing is that this is true of everyone every day.

Cahalan was very lucky to find Dr. Najjar. Her first doctor denied there was anything wrong with her, but he did get her admitted to the hospital which helped her along her path. In Chapter 23, Dr. Segal, her first doctor in the hospital, tells Susannah’s family that she’s been assigned to Dr. Najjar. While the family is at first upset, we think this showed a lot of bravery on Dr. Siegal’s behalf. He was big enough to admit what he didn’t know. Instead of trying to treat Susannah even though it was above his expertise, he knew to pass her off. It’s hard to remember that doctors ‘practice,’ not ‘perform’ because medicine is an art, not yet a science. There are times when it’s wrong and while that’s unfortunate, it’s the ugly truth.

We were all struck with how supportive her friends and family were, especially her boyfriend Stephen. We thought it was great that co-workers and cousins were making big efforts to come see her. Stephen’s commitment to her was commendable. The two hadn’t been together for very long and he could have left and no one would have blamed him, but he stuck around. I suggested that it’s almost better that they hadn’t been together a long time. Susannah said she never felt completely like herself again after the illness. If Stephen had been with her for a long time before the illness, he might find that he feels distant from the ‘new’ Susannah but because they were not as close before, he can see the changes and recognize them but can still adjust to her new personality.

It bothered some of our members that Susannah’s parents decided not to tell their son about his sister’s condition. Some of us understood more than others. On one hand, you would want to know if your sibling was sick. You would want to be there for them and help out in any way you could. On the other hand, there wasn’t much more that her brother could have done. He was away at college and the only thing he could do was sit beside her bed, which would mean he’d miss enough classes to need to drop out of school.

My university didn’t give us Labor Day Weekend off (which is a Federal Holiday in September for my non-US readers). Their reason was simple; retention. They found that Freshman were more likely to drop out if they returned home so soon after classes started. If they had one ‘bad’ professor or fight with their roommate, it might be tempting to stay home and leave that awful college thing behind. But by staying on campus, students had to figure things out for themselves and were more likely to stay in school. I think this is kind of what the Cahalan’s were thinking by not telling their son. They wanted him to stay in school.

We wondered if Cahalan did make the 100% recovery she thinks she did. She says she was changed as a result of this disease. Is part of that change not having the full mental capacity she had before she got sick? Even though she feels she has made a 100% recover, she has a 20% chance of the disease reappearing. If it does, it could damage her further, but knowing what the disease is might be key to getting her the treatment she needs quickly in the event of a relapse. We doubt she’ll ever completely recover her brain function, but she’s recovered enough to happily live the life she had before. I can bet that Cahalan is happier to be alive and healthy each day much more than I am.

Our book club meets again next week! We’ll be discussion Will Schwalbe’s book, “The End Of Your Life Book Club.” I really need to get a jump on that title!

Until next time, write on.

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