This is a guest post by my friend Jana Remy, a Ph.D. Candidate at UC Irvine and the founder of the Making History Podcast and Blog.  A longer, ramblier, vicodin-inspired version of this post first appeared here.

My left leg was propped up on the edge of the gurney as the ER doc sliced open the abscess on my calf to release the pus he needed for a bacterial culture. He started to chatting with me deflect the tension of the moment. As he grabbed various vials and swabbed the bleeding wound he asked me why I was traveling alone in Denver. My reply, “I’m getting a PhD, writing a dissertation chapter on 19th century medical history in the American West. I’ll be working in archives at the Historical Society this week.”

My dissertation research about 19th century medical history is fueled by my experiences as a medical patient. Most recently, for the past four months I’ve battled a mysterious antibiotic-resistant infection in my left leg (the jury is still out about whether the infection is MRSA or an atypical mycobacterium—just today I had an MRI scan and we hope to draw yet another wound culture by the end of the week).* I can’t help but draw parallels between my own rather gruesome ailment and the “suppurating wounds” full of “laudable pus” that I’ve read about in postbellum American medical journals. This situation truly came to head a few weeks ago while I was in Denver on a research trip and my infection recurred; I became a patient in one of the very hospitals that I aimed to study during my stint in town.

In pondering my intimate relationship with my research topic, I’ve considered the writings of ethnographers Ruth Behar and Greg Sarris. Weaving their personal stories with their histories adds a weight to their work that moves beyond a story frozen in time captured by an objective observer. It seems more than coincidence that the writers’ lives are so closely tied to those of their subjects. As Behar writes, “You don’t choose to write the books you write, any more than you choose your mother, your father, your brother, or your comadre” (Translated Woman, xi). Am I to imagine that the angel of history dropped down from the sky and offered me this gift of a story, as an offering to this poor graduate student struggling to prove the significance of her obscure research topic about medical practices at the dawning of the age of germ theory? Because of the closeness of my research to my current medical drama, I’m tempted to mirror some of Behar and Sarris’ techniques in my own work, weaving my story along with those I study. But I wonder at the possible folly of such an approach—historians who study the 19th century (or earlier eras) don’t tend to get personal with their subject matter. It seems the only acceptable approach is to bookend one’s “real research” with personal reflections, as do Bill Cronon and Martha Hodes.

Still, as I write my dissertation I aim to blur some of the traditional boundaries of the historical genre—adding literary elements and experimenting with the traditional textual form. Though at this point it seems too far outside of the sphere of the dissertation to inject my personal experiences anywhere except in the Intro, I will still infuse my text with my own morbid fascination for medical detail. Because how can I write a compelling vignette about battlefield surgery without injecting my freaky curiosity about the details of arterial ligature, techniques of amputation, and moist wound dressings? And, given that I may well be writing my next chapter during the hours I’ll be whiling away hooked up to an antibiotic IV drip, such details hit painfully close to home (I’m wondering if I should hold out for maggot therapy to debride the infected tissue—wouldn’t that be the perfect story to include in the intro to my first book?).

***

Antibiotic-resistant infections like MRSA have a history, one that begins in the nineteenth century with the professionalization and routinization of allopathic medical practice. The use of antibiotics as a panacea for nearly any ailment became part of the performative “practice” of medicine by the late twentieth century—such antibiotics confidently prescribed by white-coated board-certified physicians who had little inkling of the consequences. Certainly they weren’t thinking of people like me, who have complex medical histories involving numerous necessary doses of antibiotics, and who are subsequently more susceptible to extra-resistant infections.

Thus, my fascination with medical history is profoundly personal. It’s an attempt to understand the terrain of my own body. It’s what I thought about for the hours I was recently an inpatient in my university’s hospital, where I was told I couldn’t bring any personal belongings (not even a book–the horror) because of rampant theft from patients. So I was a book-less, laptop-less, cellphone-less patient with not much more to consider than the view out the window (a back alley), the pain in my leg (tooth-gritting), and my research objectives.** I thought a lot about what it meant to write “professional” history and what it meant to tell stories. The paranoid hypochondriac part of me also worried whether I would ever get better and get on with my work, even as I realized that my own medical experiences aren’t just tangential to my work, they are at the heart of it. And, in one fashion or another, they will be a part of everything I write.


*The MRI showed that the mysterious infection that was encroaching on my tibia, necessitating immediate surgery. I documented my recovery on my soloblog.
**Actually, I also thought a lot about Foucault, which I found one can’t help but contemplate in a situation like mine—wondering whether one is in the “clinic” or the “prison.” But that, of course, is another story. And I should also note that there was a television in my corner of the ward, but I never turned it on because I haven’t watched TV in a few decades and I wasn’t about to start just because I was hospitalized, for crying out loud.

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