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Riveting medical memoir speaks for 'gowned exhibit'

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THIS riveting medical memoir opens with a "warning shot," the snapping sound of an emergency room doctor pulling on rubber gloves.

Julie Devaney, a 22-year-old grad student, has arrived at a Vancouver hospital, desperately seeking help. She has had 12 bloody bowel movements over 16 hours and is in excruciating pain.

This snap of the rubber glove punctuates the beginning of a series of invasive scopes, enemas, medications and surgeries for Devaney, who is eventually diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. And later re-diagnosed with Crohn's disease.

It's a complicated story told in a compelling way.

One may surmise that Devanay, a Toronto author and health-care activist, has written this book as a manifesto for Canadian health-care reform. And it's true that since she had colon-removal surgery, Devaney has taken her experiences on the road, performing from a gurney on stage at health-care conferences and medical schools.

But this volume is more than simply a political manifesto. My Leaky Body is significant because Devaney allows the reader deep into the life of a chronically ill but normal-looking person.

We follow this smart-as-a-whip young scholar and political activist through half a dozen years where every day is dominated by her experiences of inflammatory bowel disease. Devaney often switches on the bathroom fan and lets the tap run to hide her sobs and cries from her housemates.

Her journey is intensely private. But with aching prose and wry humour, she shares the intimacies of her life and offers a glimpse into her rage and determination.

My Leaky Body (this title is a reference to a feminist concept) introduces the reader to a real live "bed blocker," a chronically ill patient who is one of those "not really sick" people who "clogs" the ER of the local hospital.

It is a must-read for each of us who thinks there are definite answers to medical problems. It is a must-read for those who think that chronic illness must surely get easier to bear. And, yes, it is a must-read for medical professionals. All of them.

Is there hope in this story? Sure, but it's not an easy hope. It is a gritty hope, scarred by the nastiness of defensive medical professionals and know-it-all naturopaths. It is a hope that survives despite the ponderous bureaucracies of university faculties and the petty politics of the doctor's office.

There are exquisite pieces of wisdom in this book.

Devaney prescribes a curriculum for medical students based on collaboration, kindness and respect for the patient's bodily experiences.

She knows what's needed to cure the medical system: money, manners and miracles.

And it's time, she rails, for us to get rid of the divide that says the patient is "broken" and the doctor is "flawless." Rather, both are human. Flawed, real, and mortal.

In unexpected flights of fancy, Devaney introduces the reader to her heroes. During a particularly awful hospital visit, she channels the spirit of Canadian reformer Tommy Douglas, who brings her a compelling message: "Dream no little dreams."

Another time, Devaney makes a pilgrimage to the home of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, whose political art coincided with a period of illness.

Devaney hopes that her single story can say something to our world. Her life ambition is to "give voice to the sheeted slab on the operating table, the gowned exhibit in the bed."

Devaney's voice is strong, sometimes strident. But it is a voice that will echo the next time the reader is sitting in a crowded ER, waiting a turn.


Adelia Neufeld Wiens is a Winnipeg freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J9


Updated on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 10:39 AM CST: adds fact box

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