A woman’s marriage ends, bitterly. In the divorce, she loses her home. She begins drinking and doing drugs, eventually becoming addicted to heroin and contracting HIV from a contaminated needle. She develops painful complications from the virus. She loses her job, and her relationship with her children is damaged.
But somehow she manages to pull herself out of this mire: she quits drugs, manages her health, and begins life anew. Until she meets an insurmountable obstacle.
In Atul Gawande’s 2008 article for The New Yorker, he introduces us to the extraordinary (and frightening) story of “M.”, a patient whose life is ruined by a persistent, incurable itch on her scalp. Then he raises some interesting questions: what is the sensation of itching? In fact, what is any sensation? Our brain attempts to piece together truth from inadequate impressions of a mysterious world. If M.’s brain is telling her to scratch an itch that shouldn’t even be there, what does that tell us about the connection between the brain and the body?
Gawande is an excellent writer and a master storyteller. A working physician as well as a medical journalist for The New Yorker and The Slate, he describes the experiences of real people in order to illustrate a bigger picture. I can’t help but read his articles in one sitting, and that’s partly because of the gossipy nature of reading someone else’s medical history (things can get a little graphic), but also because of the thought-provoking conclusions he reaches about science, medicine, and philosophy. He also has a decent sense of humor (check out his Slate post on juicy medical journals). This probably won’t be the last time I’ll feature a Gawande piece on The Scope. In the meantime, I highly recommend his essay compilations Better (Picador, 2008) and Complications (Picador, 2003.) Even if you’re squeamish.
Gawande, Atul. “The Itch.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast publications. June 30, 2008.