Imagine being a guy in your prime, enjoying good health and a burgeoning career, only to be suddenly stricken with a mysterious illness that lands you in the hospital for two and a half months. That's what happened to 29 year old Ben Watt back in 1992. The mysterious illness he contracted, Churg-Strauss syndrome, nearly killed him and left him without most of his small intestine.
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For those who don't know (I didn't), Ben Watt is one half of the pop duo Everything But The Girl. Not long ago, I was fooling around on Amazon.com and came across Watt's 1996 book Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness. I generally find books about medical issues fascinating. The fact that Watt is also a musician also interested me. I also noticed that Patient received a lot of accolades on both sides of the Atlantic, plus lots of great reviews from everyday people. That's when I decided to give Patient my attention.
Churg-Strauss syndrome is an auto-immune disorder that begins with what seems like severe asthma. Later, the asthma symptoms subside, but the patient then develops severe nerve pain as the body's immune system begins to attack the body. Ben Watt's ordeal with Churg-Strauss syndrome started somewhat innocuously. Watt had suffered from mild asthma for a few years and initially thought that was what was troubling him. He was finding it harder to breathe and exercise, but he thought the symptoms would eventually subside. But then he developed chest pains and pains in his belly. He went to the hospital, where a doctor told him that he was either having a long, slow heart attack or was about to have a massive one. Watt was admitted to the hospital that day in late June. He wasn't released until September.
Doctors were baffled by Watt's illness. They tested him for everything under the sun and Watt endured their endless tests in a fruitless search for relief. As I read Watt's story, I was struck by his ability to maintain a sense of humor. He uses biting wit to relate how the illness changed his life and took him from his role as a musician to that of a patient. I also got an interesting glimpse of health care in Britain and the National Health Service. I found that aspect of Watt's book particularly intriguing since I'm an American who's studied health administration and once happened to live in England.
Above all, I am impressed by Watt's writing, which is vivid and descriptive. His style is artistic and creative. I didn't feel like I was reading just another account of a serious illness. I felt like I was reading something literary. Watt's words gave me a rudimentary understanding of what it's like to go from being a successful musician about to go on tour to a patient too weak to dress himself. Watt stayed on a hospital ward and describes some of the other patients who were there with him, as well as certain staff members. His tone is understandably very British and I get a big kick out of it.
It took me just a couple of days to read Patient, which is a mere 178 pages. Ordinarily, I might feel shortchanged at only having gotten a couple of days' reading out of this book. In this case I don't, though, because I learned a lot from Watt's account of his ordeal with Churg-Strauss syndrome. I also enjoyed being his audience.
I'm sure this book won't appeal to everybody. Though it has moments of levity, Patient ultimately takes on the serious topic of a young guy who unexpectedly faces his own mortality and survives. The journey to survival is long and occasionally depressing. Personally, though, I really enjoyed reading Patient and getting to know Ben Watt better.
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