Botulism, Tick Paralysis, The Dangers of Fad Diets, and Everything That is a Hypochondriac’s Worst Nightmare – A Review of The Deadly Dinner Party by Jonathan Edlow

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No one likes being sick. All too often many people move through their day only to realize, later on (or even right from the moment they wake up) that something isn’t quite right. In many cases, it’s a minor, easily-treatable thing that eating or taking some over-the-counter medicine can easily counteract. Other times, it’s not quite so easy to treat, but nothing that a day in with some bed rest won’t cure: a fever, perhaps, or a migraine.

And then there are the times when the situation is far graver: constant diarrhea, or vomiting, or bleeding, or paralysis, or the loss of one or more of one’s senses. It is such situations that lead to panicked emergency room visits, and oftentimes for good reason – such symptoms are often indicators of potentially life-threatening conditions. It is these moments that we dread the most, whether they happen to us or to those we love, and we try to stay vigilant against anything that might cause the more lethal diseases and maladies. A lot of it is good common sense: get vaccinated, do not eat spoiled food, ensure that one’s residence is not inhabited by vermin, do not eat spoiled food, and so on.

But every once in a while, even with all these precautions in place, whether because of lack of knowledge or sheer carelessness, one does get inflicted with some dreadful malady, and one goes to the hospital hoping a doctor will have the answer to whatever the matter might be. And then the worst-case scenario happens: the doctor knows nothing about what the matter is. As for the doctor, he or she is likely in a panic as well, because no doctor likes being confronted with a condition they cannot diagnose. Most work through the panic and either consult other doctors, or eventually manage to diagnose their patient on their own, whether through diligent and careful analysis of the facts, or occasionally, through sheer luck based on gut instinct.

All of these factors can, and do, make for interesting stories, as shown by the popularity of the show House, M.D.. Macabre though it might seem to some, diseases and their effects are a subject many people find interesting, and when they are at the center of a mystery story, so much the better, as such stories often promise some kind of resolution at the end – a good one, generally, because solving a medical mystery often means that the disease is cured and the patient or patients are able to return to their lives more or less unscathed. And it is this kind of storytelling that one finds in Jonathan Edlow’s The Deadly Dinner Party, which consists of fifteen unique cases grouped into three. In the first part, the cases are about certain pathogens; the second part deals with environmental causes for disease; while the third deals with the ways the body reacts to the things that get put into it, whether deliberately or accidentally.

The first thing that came to mind while I was reading this, aside from House, was Every Patient Tells a Story by Lisa Sanders, which I’d read back in June. However, while Sanders’ book discusses the importance of such things as a meticulous patient history and an excellent doctor-patient relationship in the diagnosis of medical issues, as well as the overall state of the practice of diagnosis in the United States, Edlow’s book focuses on specific, interesting cases. This means that the two books resonate with each other: Every Patient Tells a Story focuses on what goes on in doctors’ heads when they’re trying to come up with a diagnosis for any kind of problem they are presented with, as well as investigates the reasons why the art of diagnosis might actually be taking a downturn in the United States. The Deadly Dinner Party, on the other hand, is more about spectacular cases that are solved by doctors who apply the techniques and methodologies discussed in Every Patient Tells a Story – and, oftentimes, by following gut instinct (which is something most doctors don’t like talking about, but which they do use anyway whenever they think it might help). The latter also focuses on the importance of collaboration to solve cases, and cooperation with private and government institutions: in Edlow’s book the CDC gets top billing, especially during the first part.

Truth be told, I enjoyed The Deadly Dinner Party more than Every Patient Tells a Story, primarily because the former is everything I thought the latter would before I read it, especially since the blurb of Sanders’ book clearly stated that she was one of the primary consultants for House. And while it was still a good read, it was not quite what I thought it was.

Edlow’s book, on the other hand, is exactly what I was looking for, albeit it did have some problems of its own – primarily because of Edlow’s writing. His tone is rather bland, so it’s quite fortunate that the subject matter of his book is entertaining enough to carry each of the stories through. There are also moments when he seems to go around in circles: a clear sign of organizational issues with his writing. I attribute this to the fact that he tries to reference as much as he can in one story, bringing in as much relevant history and similar cases as he can. This is something I can appreciate, but it must be done well – and unfortunately, Edlow is no Michael Pollan, capable of interweaving stories in such a way as for the whole to be lucid as well as entertaining.

Overall, The Deadly Dinner Party makes for an interesting and informative read, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys House or medical mysteries of all stripes. It is, however, a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare, and therefore anyone who has tendencies towards that particular issue should not even take a peek at this book. I also do not recommend it for anyone with a weak stomach or delicate constitution, as Edlow’s descriptions of symptoms, while accurate and told in a fairly objective language (as one would expect from a medical doctor), can be quite gory for those who are not accustomed to reading such things. However, some readers may find Edlow’s writing to be a deal-breaker, since it can be disorganized and weak in parts, but if one can overcome those issues then this should be a fairly fun read.

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