Friday, January 01, 2010

While My Sister Sleeps review

I've never read Barbara Delinksy before but the premise of While My Sister Sleeps was enough to reel me in. Reader beware, there may be some spoilers but I don't think it will detract from your reading. Molly Snow has always lived in the shadow of her older sister, Robin, who is a determined runner bound for Olympic greatness. On a day Molly was supposed to support Robin on a run, tragedy strikes when Robin is found unconscious on the roadside by another runner. After being admitted to the ICU, it is determined that 32 year old Robin had a massive heart attack that deprived her for oxygen for too long and left her brain dead. The family reacts in a variety of ways: her father Charlie tries to be the silent supporter, her brother wants Robin off the life support, her mother Kathyrn believes Robin will come out of this and can't face the alternative, and Molly wants to do what Robin would have wanted, even though she doesn't know what this is (highlighting again the importance of discussing your wishes and filling out Advance Directives at any age.) The novel takes place over 6 days. Secrets are revealed and bonds are tested as the family grapples with difficult decisions and faces letting go.

From the beginning, it is pretty clear that Robin will not survive this. I've never worked in an ICU but this appeared to be a realistic portrayal. The hospital social worker even gets to play a part! My one gripe with that is that when Molly wants to ask about the process for organ donation, the social worker is not available because it's the weekend. The one thing I can figure out is that this is a small hospital so maybe they do not have on-call social workers...but still! Delinsky makes good use of her audience by educating readers on organ donation. The need and value for organ donation is clear and Delinsky takes the opportunity to clear up myths and assumptions. For instance, the nurse points out that great care is taken so that organ donation does not lead to disfigurement.

The mother Kathryn goes from complete denial regarding her daughter's condition to accepting that nothing more can be done. The possibility of keeping Robin on life support is addressed. As a runner she was used to being a vital, energetic person. They come to see that Robin is no longer with them, just her body, a shell. Still, it's not an easy decision. Consider this conversation between Kathryn and Charlie:
"It's the cost of having a life worth living. Choices are easy when you have nothing to lose. Would you rather have led that other kind of life?" She was feeling perverse enough to say yes, when he added, "You couldn't do that, Kathryn. It's not in your nature. I've always loved your determination- the wholehearted way you go at things."
"But now I'm giving up," she said in self-reproach. This was the frightening part of accepting what was happening. Giving up was a betrayal.
Charlie answered with startling force. "No, Kathryn. If anyone has fought these last few days, it's you. No, it's not about giving up." His voice gentled. "It's about letting go, and I say that in the most positive sense. At some point, you'll decide there's nothing else you can do and that hanging on only brings more tears."
"Have you reached that point?" Kathryn asked.
He was silent, his eyes troubled. "I want to start remembering Robin the way she was. That'll only happen when this is done." (page 272)
The conversation continues from there. In the end, Kathryn makes the decision to stop life support. In fact, she pushes the switch. (To any ICU workers, does the family member actually do that? I always thought an MD or RN had to do it.) The book ends as the family begins to mourn. Delinsky handles the medical and emotional implications of her characters' journeys well.

I'm so glad that authors are addressing difficult issues through their work. In this novel alone, Delinsky also touches on anorexia and Alzheimer's with the subplots. Kristin Hannah's Firefly Lane provides education on detecting inflammatory breast cancer. She also started the Firefly Fund as a way to give back. Both books may induce tears but they're well worth it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think Delinsky does a great job addressing tough family issues. You should check out her latest book "Not My Daughter." If you liked "While My Sister Sleeps" I think you might really enjoy it.