4 reads for the Pittsburgh winter
Theresa Brown, a nurse from Point Breeze, is already nationally known for her 2010 nursing memoir “Critical Care” and years of writing online for The New York Times about her profession. Brown’s new book, “The Shift,” should cement her reputation as a reliable and compassionate explainer of modern American heath care for the general public.
The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives
by Theresa Brown, R.N.
Algonquin Books ($24.95)
Though categorized as a “memoir” because Brown writes in the first person and draws upon her experience, “The Shift” is much more than a stream of remembered feelings. It details one jam-packed, 12-hour work day in the cancer ward of a Pittsburgh hospital. (The hospital is not named, but, as a matter of public record, she has worked as a nurse in the UPMC Shadyside cancer ward.) Four patients are under her direct care, and she attends to others as needs arise. If you didn’t already admire the physical stamina and time-management skills it takes to be a nurse, Brown’s book will cure you of that ailment. And while it stands to reason that health-care professionals must develop emotional resilience to cope with the daily onslaught of human misery, Brown shows how connected everyone in a hospital—nurses, doctors and the whole supporting cast—can become to the health of a patient and his or her family.
Yet she doesn’t portray her crew as miracle workers. “Most of modern health care doesn’t consist of intense deduction followed by ‘Aha!’ moments,” she writes, in one of many keen summations. “Smart, hardworking people gather data, ponder for however long they’ve got, and then act. Time is always of the essence.” At one point in the morning, she pauses to survey the state of her four patients: Dorothy is cured and going home, Mr. Hampton must begin a risky round of Rituxan treatment, Sheila needs emergency surgery for a perforated abdomen, and the once-in-remission Candace has returned for a cell transplant. “If there’s one thing I should have learned in the hospital, it’s how little control—of the good or the bad—we really have.”
Brown is especially good at explaining medical maladies in plain terms. “It’s essential to have blood clot when we’re cut, saving our lives, but a blood clot inside the body, in an artery or vein… is potentially deadly. During a heart attack, a clot blocks the blood supply to the heart muscle itself, causing part of the heart to die.” I didn’t really know that, and nor did I understand how sepsis works until reading that it’s when “fluid from the blood stream moves into the body’s tissues. …Imagine a garden hose with small holes placed throughout to turn it into a sprinkler.…” On the brighter side, she describes the biology of stress reduction with memorable imagery. “Breathe, I tell myself. Just breathe,” she chants, steeling herself for the admission of Candace, a notoriously demanding patient. “Our bodies can’t make energy without oxygen.”
If you’ve heard of Brown, you’ll know the unicorn part of her story: She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago and taught at Tufts before casting that all aside to pursue nursing, finishing her degree at the University of Pittsburgh after she came to town in 2005 for her husband’s career in physics. With all due respect to my dear friends in academia, Dr. Brown does not write like most people who hold a Ph.D. in English. She is clear, concise and direct, fully in touch with the general reader. “The Shift” is sprinkled with literary citations—Homer’s “Odyssey,” poems by John Keats and William Blake, lines from Hemingway and E.M. Forster. (Citing Khalil Gilbran, however, must signal that her break with the academy is complete.)
Brown is now a hospice nurse, visiting people in their homes around Pittsburgh to provide end-of-life care. In that valuable work, and her testaments by word, we are lucky to have someone in our midst who has taken the study of the humanities to its most logical conclusion.
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The Pittsburgh Anthology
edited by Eric Boyd
Belt Publishing ($20)
This selection of work from 37 writers, poets and artists makes a glorious stab at describing what makes Pittsburgh tick, these days and in the recent past.
Published out of Belt Magazine, a new online journal, “The Pittsburgh Anthology” follows collections on Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit and Youngstown. Belt anthologies on Buffalo and Akron are in the works. So in case you need it spelled out, the belt in question is the Rust Belt, and if you have ever used the word “proletariat” in a disparaging way, you are not only a rotten person, but also the wrong audience for this anthology.
Which would be your loss, failing to read Robert Gibb, the Homestead native and former steelworker who is, truly, among the best contemporary poets in America. Eric Boyd, the anthology’s editor, shows a good eye by including five works by Gibb, whose poems about mills and workers will endure. (From “Steel Engravings”: Nightly you’d see it, halfway up the sky, / That fissure of fire where the ladle cars / Tipped over, stoking the smoldering banks, / And below, where the glass of the river / Cast it back…) The inclusion of seven paintings by Robert Qualters also confirms that the editor appreciates his elders.
Boyd’s taste is also affirmed by presenting a photo essay about Braddock by LaToya Ruby Frazier, who was anointed with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in September (although it’s hard to appreciate the quality of her work given the book’s basic reproduction). Speaking of MacArthur Fellows: Boyd scores with the justly celebrated Terrance Hayes, who switches things up with “At Pegasus,” about dancing at the now-defunct Downtown gay club (“I’m just here for the music”…). Yona Harvey (Hayes’ spouse) contributes the book’s sole dispatch from the world of the bourgeoisie: “The Missing Made Visible,” a short and potent essay mainly about Teenie Harris, but really about her kid’s private school, which failed to include any black Pittsburghers on a list of “achievers” to write about for a “Pittsburgh, Our City” project. “It wasn’t as if black names were stricken,” she laments. “Our names were simply not present.” Lori Jakiela and Dave Newman (another literary couple) turn in their usual vibrant, funny essays about desperate passages in their lives. Matthew Newton’s childhood memoir of his alcoholic uncle taking him to the river in Braddock in a white Oldsmobile Cutlass, blaring Blue Oyster Cult, would be at home in any essay collection.
With 37 contributors on tap, the law of averages means that not every piece will be to every reader’s liking, and some are just plain amateurish in comparison with work by the established names. But as a wide-angle view of where most of Pittsburgh is today, “The Pittsburgh Anthology” makes its mark.
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Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America
by Allen Dietrich-Ward
University of Pennsylvania Press ($39.95)
Allen Dieterich-Ward, a history professor at Shippensburg University, provides a valuable service with “Beyond Rust.” He delivers a compact history of the Steel Valley’s development since the 1800s and its transformation after the industrial collapse of the 1980s. Young scholars and newcomers, who have not lived through the wrenching decline, will appreciate his comprehensive scope and extensive research.
The rest of us, who can recite the highs and lows of our industrial saga as easily as a nursery rhyme, will also benefit from Dieterich-Ward’s broad view. The native of southeastern Ohio reminds Pittsburgh-centric readers that this is a tri-state area story, giving the roles of Wheeling and Weirton, W.Va., and Steubenville, Ohio, their proper due.
In stretching back to the early 1800s, he shows that regional rivalries have long made good newspaper copy: “Like a half-starved, ill-natured mangy cur, she is constantly snarling and snapping at our heels,” wrote a Pittsburgh editor about Wheeling, in the wake of a new canal across Pennsylvania that gave Pittsburgh new advantages and caused Wheeling to complain. Wheeling boosters sneered that the canal was no big deal, allowing only “little wet-tailed dinky boats that a cartload of rock would sink in their best days.”
Dieterich-Ward concludes by pointing to the Power of 32, the Pittsburgh-establishment project to build strength across 30 counties of that tri-state area, plus two in western Maryland. “The sustainability of economic growth depends as much on the hinterland as on what happens downtown,” he writes. “The Steel Valley has adapted and changed over its lifetime with new economic layers deposited on, but never fully erasing, the old.”
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Justice Delayed: The Catherine Janet Walsh Story
by Steve Hillock
The Artists’ Orchard ($19.95)
If you are weary of true-crime stories that rely on florid prose and speculation on what the bad guy “must have been thinking” as he plotted a dastardly deed, then Steve Hallock’s “Justice Delayed” is the book for you. A longtime newspaper writer who directs graduate studies at Point Park University’s School of Communication, Hallock allows nothing but the facts—from public records, newspaper accounts and direct interviews—to tell the grisly story of a 1979 murder of a 23-year-old woman in Monaca, Beaver County, and the long journey to a 2013 conviction.
Two sets of heroes emerge in this saga. First is local law enforcement, led by Andrew Gall, a young Monaca police officer at the time of Janet Walsh’s murder, who never relented, pursuing the case as his career took him to the Beaver County District Attorney’s Office. The second are DNA researchers, starting with James Watson and Francis Crick, the British scientists who showed in 1953 how cellular information could be used as a forensics tool. Hallock weaves in fascinating details on how DNA evidence is used to prosecute crimes, indicating that we are nowhere near the final frontier.
It was the advances in forensics that gave the case new life in 2010, when evidence from Walsh’s bed, long in storage, was tested again, and revealed the existence of DNA that could have only been left by a man at that crime scene. The five male suspects from 1979 were tested, and one was charged and eventually convicted.
Though the trial was front-page news all over Western Pennsylvania, the name of the killer was not in my short-term memory when I started the book. To the credit of Hallock’s even-handed narrative, when we get to the 2012 arrest on page 121, it feels like a news flash. The reader has been left to figure out the cold case as it progresses.
As dogged as the prosecutors, “Justice Delayed” may test the patience of casual readers as every twist and turn of the trial is told. But you are never in doubt that the author has full command of the facts, and is committed to telling the sad story of a family’s anguish as it took 34 years for their daughter’s murderer to be brought to justice.