Review of "As I Live and Breathe"

By Jamie Weisman
North Point Press, 2002
Review by Kari Karsjens, JD on Sep 10th 2003
As I Live and Breathe

In her autobiographical account of life, death, sickness, and healing -- Jamie Weisman speaks with a narrative voice that starkly emphasizes the fundamental attributes of the powers of medicine. 

The autobiography begins amidst the backdrop of Weisman's treatment for a rare autoimmune disorder, requiring intensive medical therapy, surgical interventions, and monthly blood transfusions.  It is Weisman's encounters and fundamental ability to interact with the other patients and nursing staff at her monthly transfusions that motivates her, and ultimately propels her to attend medical school, to learn the art of healing and relieving illness and sickness.  The author wonderfully articulates the motivations, emotions, and process of self-awareness that one must undergo while contemplating a career in the medical profession, especially in light of having experienced the dual role of patient and physician. 

Weisman also provides remarkable and profound insight into the rigors and interpersonal challenges one faces while training to become a physician.  The daily exposure to life and death, and the daunting yet miraculous ability of physicians-in-training to synthesize and place their experiences into perspective is well done.  At one point in the autobiography, Weisman recounts an encounter with her own physician and healer at a charity fundraiser, who is now dying of cancer. Dr. Gussack, the physician who removed one of Weisman's swollen glands due to her immune disorder as a young adult and prevented her from disfiguring scars, is now "utterly changed, shrunken and hollowed out…he was bald except for a few wiry strands of colorless hair and he had lost his handlebar mustache.  All around … were the supposed modern-day heroes; these massive men who win adoration and millions of dollars just for playing a game, while across the room was my hero, the shadow of a man on a folding chair."

The author's candid yet kindhearted discussion of life, death, disease, healing, tragedy, and hope is the heart of this autobiography.  Although many physician-authors have written about the changes and revelations that occur when a physician is transformed into a patient, this is a first where the physician starts as a patient.  Weisman's discovery and understanding of the art of medicine and the meaning of the words "medical doctor" resonate with us each of us, who have personally experienced the complex and confusing foray into the world of medicine. 

Weisman's reflections and observations would not be complete, however, without some insight into her personal life.  After completing medical school, despite several surgeries and disease relapses, Weisman finds her soulmate and husband, Victor Balaban.  Despite medical advice to the contrary, she then decides to start a family; and the subsequent miracles that bless her are equally endearing as the author and her family arrive full circle. 

The autobiography is replete with themes of complexity, connection, fear, confusion, joy, and the uncertainties of life.  But in the end, Weisman "finds [herself] reduced to and daily confronted with the fundamental blindness of humanity...illness has forced [her] to make consciously the choice that the greater part of humanity makes without thinking each day, to soldier forward in our ignorance."  Weisman has provided a unique and valuable contribution with As I Live and Breathe -- reminding each of us not to take anything for granted, and to rejoice in those aspects of humanity that make life itself a beloved gift.        


© 2003 Kari Karsjens


Kari Karsjens, JD, American Medical Association.


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