Friday, May 26, 2023

The Autumn Ghost by Hannah Wunsch (Review)

A black and white photo of a female med student standing near a patient's bed, manually pumping a ventilator balloon so a child can breathe. Another student (a man with glasses) sits to the left of her. The title is in white with the subtitle near the bottom in small, yellow text.

Note: I received this in order to review it.

The subtitle of this book (How the Battle Against a Polio Epidemic Revolutionized Modern Medical Care) is incredibly accurate. Did you know the first true ICU was created in Denmark by an anesthesiologist who realized the benefits of such a department because of what he saw during a polio outbreak in 1952? We also have modern blood gas tests due to the necessity of frequent pH checks of polio patients' blood.

The story is structured a bit like a medical mystery. A lot of the focus is on a hospital called the Blegdam, the only contagious disease hospital in Copenhagen. The author even goes through how hospitals in the city helped hide Jewish people and assisted the Danish resistance in World War II; the war shaped alliances between doctors into the 1950s. A good amount of the narrative goes into the deluge of polio cases during the aforementioned summer of 1952. 

I thought this book was going to be dry, but it's actually full of life and many interesting tidbits. Most people introduced (researchers, doctors, and patients) in this book have photos and pieces of their personalities sprinkled in. The reader hears what happened to them after the disease left their lives and what came next, if anything. Not all endings are happy. 

The medical terminology and inventions were presented in a way I understood. It was cool knowing what industries gave the medical field certain innovations or improvements.

Medical experiments on animals were brought up fairly often. If you're the type of person who doesn't want to read how animal testing leads to breakthroughs or setbacks in the medical field, you might need to skip this read. It goes far beyond the typical experimentation on mice. Another thing that might upset readers is the trial vaccine given out at schools/homes for the "feeble-minded" with no guidelines in place (or, at points, consent); but there are only two brief instances mentioned. 

A lot of historical context is given, especially if there was a device or concept floated around well before an equivalent is introduced in the 1940s or 1950s. For instance, the idea behind the iron lung existed way before the ones we currently think of were on the market. 

I learned a lot from this book and don't regret a minute I spent reading it. I even learned the story behind the creation of the boardgame Candy Land. I recommend this book.

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