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Blue Water, White Water
by Robert C. Samuels
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Rating:
Reviewed by: Gordon Osmond

Robert Samuels's memoir, Blue Water, White Water, opens with the author's 70th birthday party, an idyllic affair attended by his true love, to whom the book is dedicated, and old friends. The short description of the festivities ends with a nice twist--the birthday boy is confined to a wheelchair, and a power chair at that.

The twist exacts a high price, however, for it lets out of the bag the answers to two questions that are raised and might have caused some suspenseful interest during the balance of the book's telling of the onset and early stages of the author's struggle with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare and particularly nasty neurological disorder, which at least initially and with insidious speed completely paralyzes its victims:

Will the author completely recover his mobility as other victims reportedly have? He will not. Will his marriage to the woman who is his primary non-professional caregiver during the critical first year of the disease survive the ordeal? It will not.

These negative answers are confirmed in a brief, conclusory wrap-up that ends the book, but without much in the way of elaboration, particularly about the failed marriage.

The book details, sometimes more like a diary than an organized, thematic memoir, the first year of the author's struggle with the horrific illness, which, although the author doesn't tell us, was named after two French physicians who identified it in 1916. The typical stages of crisis--shock, denial, anger, and acceptance--are told in the first person present with a reporter's eye for detail. Aside from his wife's loyalty and love, the primary focus is upon the doctors, nurses, and other professional caregivers. Quite understandably these characters come off from moment to moment as devils or angels. This depends upon the degree to which they are at that moment adding to or providing relief from the author's agony. The author himself moves from stoic warrior to whining complainer, all at the whim of a disease the horror of which has few equals. The ease with which the author, an accomplished wordsmith and presumed liberal, slips into vocabularic vulgarity and bigotry is a testament to the stress that envelops him.

The chronological narrative is occasionally interrupted by italicized flashbacks to happier days and there are intervals of humor, mostly predictably black. The author's description of his battle with beds representing technological advances of various kinds is genuinely comic, and I rather liked the author's observation that, "Television is bad enough when you can choose your own programs." And who can resist imagining with some amusement how a renowned doctor named Ramsbotham spends his evenings.

Among the author's visiting well wishers is a fellow who takes a wheelchair from a hallway and spins around in it; in other respects it appears that the author travels in relatively civilized circles.

Amid the laborious accounts of the daily suctioning, turnings in bed, and often painful and always slow progress toward mobility and communication there is an isolated philosophical passage, from which the memoir takes its title, which for me represented the book at its best:

"Life's so often like that: a big crapshoot. Random luck brings an individual sperm to an egg, not to mention the chance that brings a father to a mother. We make many choices, but the important stuff seems to happen on its own. It's as though we're all on small individual rafts, bobbing down a wide river. The water is calm and blue. We steer this way and that, sometimes even briefly paddling against the flow, seemingly in control. But the current pushes us relentlessly on. Unexpectedly, the river can narrow and suddenly the rapids are upon us. It's all white water now and we have no control. Tremendous boulders threaten. If our luck holds, if random chance is with us and our raft isn't smashed on a rock or sucked into a whirlpool, we reach the next run of blue water. The river sets everyone a different course. Some seem to miss the rapids completely - others never see calm. But the river flows in the same direction for us all. Eventually, it's over the falls and into the abyss for everyone."

Although the book literally covers a span of more than 25 years, it does not pretend to cover comprehensively the author's adult lifetime struggle with Guillain-Barré Syndrome. As its sub-subtitle admits, the book is more fairly judged as a well-documented and fervently felt letter of complaint to hospital administrators. It is indeed a "harrowing true story of a person's struggle to survive in one of America's top hospitals!"


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