To what extent can our minds be instruments of our own healing, and are there biological bases for this self-help phenomenon? These are the puzzles Jerome Groopman attempts to solve in this series of case studies and reports, most of which are from his own medical files. Groopman holds a chair at Harvard Medical School, heads the experimental medicine division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and is a staff writer on medicine and biology for The New Yorker. In presenting this gallery of patients whose destinies were apparently altered by the presence or absence of hope, Groopman is quick to draw the line between "false hope," which fails to acknowledge the seriousness of a disease and to cooperate fully in its treatment, and "true hope," which understands that mind and medicine may be powerful enough to delay or derail what appears to be a certain death sentence.
One of the most fascinating case studies is Groopman's account of his own struggle with debilitating back pain after he ruptured a lumbar disc in 1979. Despite operations, physical therapy and a severe curtailment of movement, the pain plagued Groopman for 20 years. Finally, he sought relief at the Spine Center of New England Baptist Hospital, where Boston Celtic star Larry Bird had been helped. There, a doctor examined Groopman and told him, "You are worshipping the volcano god of pain" meaning that he had forfeited normal activity in the hope of avoiding pain. The doctor recommended a regimen in which belief in recovery slowly blunted the pain of stretching unused muscles. It was an arduous trip back, but Groopman eventually conquered the pain and "felt reborn."Since his recovery, Groopman has continued to investigate "the biology of hope" the mechanism between body and mind and his studies have convinced him such a connection exists. "Each disease is uncertain in its outcome," he concludes, "and within that uncertainty we find real hope."Edward Morris reviews for BookPage from Nashville.