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  • Healthy words

    Six health-related books worth a read
  • Despite ongoing public battles over the health care overhaul signed into law earlier this year, health care remains a deeply personal matter.
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  • Despite ongoing public battles over the health care overhaul signed into law earlier this year, health care remains a deeply personal matter.
    Several books published in the last year or so stand out for their enlightening, entertaining and often personal stories on the health and science front.
    This is hardly an exhaustive list of all the worthy titles. But in case you missed them, here are six health books you might consider cracking open for yourself or giving to a loved one.
    Five are nonfiction and one is fiction.
    "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"
    by Rebecca Skloot (Crown; 369 pages; $26 hardcover)
    There's something for nearly every kind of reader in this story that began when a poor black woman sought treatment for cervical cancer in 1951 and a doctor in Baltimore took a tissue sample without her consent. The practice wasn't uncommon at the time, but Lacks' sturdy "HeLa" cells proved to be most uncommon. After she died, scientists were able to use her cell line to develop a raft of new therapies including the polio vaccine, and the profitable business of human biological materials was born. Despite her enormous contribution to medical science, Lacks' descendants were unable to afford health insurance, and they suffered two decades before learning the truth about her legacy. Skloot's patience in winning the family's trust pays off and she lets Lacks' daughter Deborah emerge as a poignant protagonist, weaving a moving family portrait into a cautionary tale about health care injustice.
    "The Healing of America" by T. R. Reid (Penguin Press; 288 pages; $16 paperback)
    A veteran journalist goes on a self-described "medical pilgrimage" from India to Germany to compare wealthy countries' health systems through the prism of his aching shoulder. Reid is a particularly engaged patient as he collects medical advice from doctors and other culturally specific health care practitioners aiming to help him past the pain of an old injury. But he's just as interested in getting answers as to why the industrialized world's health systems evolved as they did and why the U.S. outspends them all while leaving 50 million people uninsured and failing to get better health results for its money. With humor and lucidity, Reid reminds readers that no health system is perfect. But he trains his eye on Switzerland and Taiwan as examples of similar free-market democracies that found the political will to cover nearly everyone.
    "Deadly Spin"
    by Wendell Potter (Bloomsbury Press; 288 pages; $26 hardcover)
    A former public-relations executive for health-insurance companies lays bare the tricks of the trade that he says insurers have used over the years to mislead reporters and scare and confuse Americans into keeping the dysfunctional system they have. Potter exposes the firms' lavish executive pay, use of front groups and tactics for weaseling out of insuring the very people who need coverage most, but he also condemns the for-profit model that sets up the need for these companies to compete on who can shed the most risk in the first place. It's not just insurers he takes to task. He looks back in history to the major self-serving public-relations campaigns that trade groups like the American Medical Association have used to derail previous attempts to make health care more equitable. Potter reveals the stories of patient desperation that caused him to abandon his 20-year career and explains why he fears that spin will win.
    "The Emperor of All Maladies"
    by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner; 572 pages; $30 hardcover)
    For all the talk and news about cancer, it seems to exist in a world that has moved past basic questions about its scientific and social history. Not so on Mukherjee's watch. In a comprehensive "biography" of cancer, he introduces a vast cast of characters, including Sidney Farber and others with familiar names that grace cancer wards, and describes their early trials and errors that led to advances in cancer treatment. But a victory lap is out of the question. The author wants to know how scientists' shifting understanding and treatment of this complex disease can be used to predict its future, and his descriptions of patients' cases unfold with humane elegance. He uses the tale of the ancient Persian queen Atossa, who asked a slave to cut off her cancer-ridden breast, to orient readers on a treatment time line that extends to the present.
    "So Much For That"
    by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins; 433 pages; $25.99 hardcover)
    The 2008 stock market meltdown isn't the only thing that can keep older U.S. workers from their dreams of early retirement. In this novel, a devastating diagnosis foils the plans of Shep Knacker, whose wife Glynis informs him upon hearing about his impending move to an exotic location, "I'm afraid I will need your health insurance." So begins a harrowing journey filled with the stresses of marital problems, major surgery, medical bills, caregiving, family resentment and financial worries. Like bitter medicine, the book doesn't go down well in spots and could use some comic relief. But Shriver has penned an ambitious novel that dares to tackle the elephant in the room: middle-class Americans' mighty struggle to afford and navigate health care, and to hold onto some shred of dignity while they do it.
    "The Checklist Manifesto"
    by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books; 209 pages; $24.50 hardcover)
    Even the most highly skilled and trained among us is prone to forgetting crucial steps or neglecting to ask critical questions when the pressure is on. So says Gawande, a "New Yorker" writer and surgeon at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, who takes readers on a tour of how different professions and skilled trades manage the growing complexity of their tasks. By studying the careful ways of people such as successful skyscraper-builders, chefs in top-notch restaurants and institutional investors, he draws parallels to how U.S. health care teams can improve their performance and reduce deadly medical errors with the use of checklists. With both wit and gravitas, Gawande lends new urgency to an old idea.
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