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There is a vast literature on death and dying, but there are few reliable accounts of the ways in which we die. The intimate accounts of how various diseases take away life offered in How We Die, is not meant to prompt horror or terror but to demythologize the process of dying. Though the avenues of death—AIDS, cancer, heart attack, Alzheimer’s, accident, and stroke—are common, each of us will die in a way different from any that has gone before. Each one of death’s diverse appearances is as distinctive as that singular face we each show during our lives. Behind each death is a story. In How We Die, Sherwin B. Nuland, a surgeon and teacher of medicine, tells some stories of dying that reveal not only why someone dies but how. He offers a portrait of the experience of dying that makes clear the choices that can be made to allow each of us his or her own death.
As a veteran surgeon, Sherwin Nuland is familiar with such organs as the heart, stomach, liver, spleen, and uterus. In folklore and legend, these organs have been given “personalities” or behaviors that often reflected prevailing philosophies of the time. Although we think of ourselves as living in a scientific age, we have inherited many of these folktales and illusions, and we are often comforted by what they tell us about ourselves, even when the legends are inaccurate.
In tracing these legends from primitive times to the present day, Dr. Nuland shows how our current knowledge of these organs has emerged from a rich history of imaginative speculation about how the human body works and what role each of these major organs plays. (Our early ancestors believed that the organs were independent creatures living within their bodies.) He illustrates his point by recounting riveting stories of operations, such as a stomach surgery to remove a mysterious substance from a six-week-old…[more]