The Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic

Image of The Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic
Release Date: 
May 21, 2013
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“. . . when I was there, the smallest transaction had a quality of both gentleness and competence, a vast, interlocking machine of efficiency communicated on human terms.”
— Nora Gallagher

Much like a good portion of the population, Nora Gallagher was always in a hurry, on fast autopilot zooming through life unaware of her surroundings, her eye focused on the future. In her words she was always “bizzy.”

Until one day that future did not hold the promise and surety it previously did.

In Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, Ms. Gallagher offers readers an inside look at how a devastating diagnosis can turn every day into something to cherish, while at the same time something to dread.

Using a map as allegory, Ms. Gallagher leads the reader on a journey of her life, before and after her diagnosis of an inflamed optic nerve that could lead to blindness. This analogy allows her to chart her progress, or lack of, as she bounces from doctor to doctor, clinic to clinic.

She writes, “What principally drove the makers of the large maps was conquest; the smaller ones, discovery.” In her case, she embraced these two purposes. Determined to beat this condition, she searches for medical professionals who can help her unlock the mystery that will lead to recovery.

Although this book at its core deals with a complex subject, readers need not expect a tome filled with dry writing liberally sprinkled with medical jargon and technical test results. Rather, Ms. Gallagher utilizes the best of lyrical writing to chronicle her life, family, career path, and religious practices. Sentences likes “We went to New York for the rivers of words” will invite readers in and hold their attention throughout the story.

The author’s diagnosis serves as the catalyst for the story, but she wraps so much more of herself into the story. Not only does she relate the physical journey on which she embarks, but she also chronicles several other aspects of her life. For instance, growing hyper-awareness of her surroundings leads Ms. Gallagher to notice and treasure every scent, sight and sound. Whereas she previously cruised through life, oblivious to the wonders around her, she now inhales the splendor of flowers in bloom, a child on a bike and overheard conversations.

In some strange sense, the author’s vision problems contribute to her “seeing” much better. “Finally I understood that my eyes were going to the vulnerable, the sick, the homeless first now, whereas before I had seen them last. I would say my eyes rested on them now, whereas in the past my eyes passed over them,” she writes.

Ms. Gallagher injects stories of her parents, how they met and how their marriage fell apart, details that offer insight into the person the author has become. She also provides an account of her changing relationship with spirituality and organized religion. Headed to seminary before her diagnosis derailed her, the author resorts to the mapping analogy again as way to understand what previously had been an integral part of her life, but now hovers on the periphery.

For someone who earns a living by writing, the loss of vision has to be one of the most devastating medical events. Not only was she a professional writer, but Ms. Gallagher was also an avid reader. When both of these activities are withdrawn, what is left?

In time, her deteriorating eyesight forces her to forgo her favorite pastimes and explore other options. “I had no morning newspaper, no novel to take to bed, nothing to read while eating lunch. That whole world was suddenly gone. I had no characters living inside me.”

The book’s sections give the reader an indication of where Ms. Gallagher is on her journey. For instance, the second section, Limbo, like her emotional state, is written in fragments. As she drifts in and out of an assortment of doctors’ offices, frustration, helplessness and hopelessness mounting as her vision deteriorates, the author’s writing style reflects this emotional state.

Like Dorothy lost and overwhelmed in Oz, the author seeks a way “home.” She finds her Emerald City and her wizard at the Mayo Clinic. With her newfound powers of observation, she drinks in all she can at Mayo, where nearly everyone has their own story to tell. Other patients in wheelchairs, wigs and ghostly pale complexions fascinate her.

Thankfully, the facility presents a very un-clinical like atmosphere, from glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly to beautifully landscaped grounds, an environment easily comparable to a high-end hotel rather than a medical facility. “From the beginning, Mayo distinguished itself in this way: it struggled against the impersonal that is the ubiquitous nature of most medical institutions,” she writes.

Throughout her journey, Ms. Gallagher had encountered the sterile, clinical, impersonal world of medicine, which made her feel “as if one’s singularity were slowly being eroded by the attitudes of the assistants, the doctors and the surroundings.”

The good fortune to land at the Mayo Clinic shattered the glass wall that kept her isolated and helpless. She writes, “. . . when I was there, the smallest transaction had a quality of both gentleness and competence, a vast, interlocking machine of efficiency communicated on human terms.” The author’s relief at finding at last a place that offered some answers is palpable.

As the last section suggests, Ms. Gallagher is “recalled to life” through the grace and good fortune of specialists at the Mayo Clinic. An intricate labyrinth on the grounds serves as the perfect allegory for the path the author has traveled, bringing her out of the darkness of uncertainty and into the light of knowledge.