Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: Beautiful Affliction by Lene Fogelberg


Have you ever gone to the doctor for something and been dismissed only to later feel vindicated when something was in fact wrong with you? What if you were dismissed for years, despite knowing deep in your bones, that something was not right? Lene Fogelberg knew that she was dying but not one doctor in her native Sweden agreed with her. In fact, she was labeled a hypochondriac, ignored, and finally denied medical leave because no one even thought to truly examine her. And yet she was right; she was in fact dying of a congenital heart disease. Beautiful Affliction is her memoir, of life undiagnosed and of the two open heart surgeries that saved her just in time.

When Lene was small, a doctor listened to her heart and declared that she had a harmless heart murmur, nothing to worry about. Neither her parents nor she saw any reason to disagree with this diagnosis. But despite the all clear on her health, she had strange unexplainable symptoms that increased as she got older. She was cold a lot, always exhausted, and felt like she was having trouble breathing, but if these were constants in her life, they were unremarkable for the most part and she just lived her life as best as she could. Lene met Anders when she was only twelve and he was fourteen. They were a couple from then on, marrying young and eventually going on to have two daughters. Lene suffered terribly following each pregnancy, uncertain why pregnancy and childbirth took such a toll on her. Although she mainly ignored the state of her health, having been told time and again that nothing was wrong with her, Lene never believed doctors, always certain that there was a monster inside her just waiting to be exposed. When Anders was transferred to the US, Lene did her best to make the move a smooth one for him and their small daughters despite her overwhelming and constant weariness. In order to get a driver's license she had to submit to a physical and it was through this that her heart murmur, alarming in its magnitude, was discovered. Lene had an abnormal aortic valve, one so constricted that each doctor she saw was amazed by the fact that she was still upright. She needed immediate open heart surgery to save her life.

The memoir starts out with the Fogelbergs' move to Philadelphia and what leads up to Lene's diagnosis alternating with chapters of pieces from Lene's past and childhood, her early years with Anders, the agonizing difficulties of her her pregnancies, and the complete, constant dismissals by the Swedish medical professionals whenever she tries to uncover the riddle of what is wrong with her. The different chapters are formatted differently, with the past being all italicized while the current day moving forward chapters are all in regular font, a questionable editorial decision.  If only a formatting decision marks the difference between the chapters for the reader, the memoir should be narrated differently.

In both time periods of the memoir, Fogelberg's regret for her inability to do everything she thinks she should be able to do and her desire for forgiveness for her perceived weaknesses shines through. She is not only physically affected by this hidden disease but she is emotionally gutted by the visible results of it. Her struggle is heart felt and painful to read and she allows the reader a very intimate insight into her very deepest fears and hopes. She is terrified of leaving her small daughters motherless and is filled with sorrow at the thought of leaving Anders long before either of them are ready. The continual repetition of how she's feeling and her symptoms beats a steady and unchanging refrain, like the constant beating of her diseased heart. Fogelberg is a poet and her language is indeed very poetic, metaphorical, and vivid. The calcified valve is discovered about midway through the memoir and after that point, the confusion and rush of an impending major surgery takes over as Fogelberg writes in short, almost disjointed snippets reflecting her own jagged mental state. Only when her survival is assured does the writing steady out again. And only after all is said and done and the memoir's final page has been read does she take to task Sweden's socialized medicine and the way that it almost fatally failed her. Fogelberg offers this lyrical memoir as a testament to miracles, to the fragility of life, to the importance of intuition, and to the power of love and support.

Thanks to the publisher and Book Sparks PR for sending me a copy of the book to review.

1 comment:

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