Exploring Human Boundaries

Health Care Providers and Their Patients

A series developed by Marli Weiner

  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Plague by Albert Camus
  • The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
  • W;t by Margaret Edson

A disease or a sick person? Health care professionals do not always focus on what is most important to the patient and the patient’s family. These classic 20th-century accounts of illness, death, and dying dramatically illuminate these complex issues.


Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a nonfiction account of an epileptic child from a Hmong family living in California, and the interactions (and clashes) between her family and the American medical and social service cultures that attempt to help them. It highlights the problematic nature of communication, the significance of cultural differences in relation to that as well as to appropriate treatment, and the often very real uncertainty of diagnosis and therapy.

A major point of Albert Camus’ The Plague is that plagues come in many forms. Whether it’s prejudice, influenza, AIDS, or the Nazis, of course it is the individual and public health responses to the “plague” that provide such rich material for discussion. Camus’ work has the additional advantage of being one of the relatively few pieces of literature that present physicians in a positive light.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a short work that has entered the women’s studies canon. This early 20th century portrayal of a woman ill with an unidentified mental condition—what we would probably call depression—is particularly pointed on the dynamics of gender and power.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly by Jean-Dominque Bauby is a memoir by the former editor of Elle who suffered a stroke that left him only able to blink one eye, describing the almost unimaginable situation of someone at the peak of his career condemned to virtually total paralysis but full consciousness.

W;t, by Margaret Edson is a new Pulitzer-Prize-winning play about the interactions between a middle-aged academic dying of ovarian cancer and her health care providers. It raises a variety of issues germane to the health care world, including the limitations of expertise, the subtleties of communication, and the lessons that can be learned around the process of dying.