book review, quotes, review

Review: Model Patient: My Life as an Incurable Wise-Ass by Karen Duffy

I decided to take a break from the HAWMC prompts today to share a book that I love.

Even if you don’t recognize Karen Duffy by name, you probably will recognize her face.

The day after the above picture was taken, Karen landed in the hospital. She had a horrible pain in her neck and it surely wasn’t Clooney related. It took a very long time to narrow down the possible maladies Karen was facing, but she was eventually diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease where inflammation causes lumps called granulomas to form in your body. This disease, like many other autoimmunes, can be managed well. The only problem is that Karen’s is in her central nervous system, leading to granulomas that leave parts of your body numb and can be fatal.If that doesn’t do it, she’s the girl in Dumb and Dumber chasing Harry and Lloyd and the girl in Blank Check that the kid hires. She was a VJ for MTV for a while and did a lot of ads with Revlon as well.

Karen’s life pre-illness, as you might be able to tell from the above picture, was freaking awesome. She had gone to school to be a recreational therapist and loved working with the elderly. She was a model and an actress. She dated stars from Clooney to Dwight Yoakam to Chris Farley (note: this book is worth it just for the stories). Clearly, when the illness hit, she was blindsided. Depression sat in that, in addition to the physical effects of sarcoidosis, left her essentially bed bound for a long time. She even missed important events like her sister’s wedding.

She has always been very independent and so the thing that scared her the most was “becoming dependent on other people – on my family, on my friends, even on recreational therapists like myself” (56). She is very blunt in the book about the feelings she had and how difficult it was to do anything, something that is missing in a lot of books about illness. She would go between extremes, from hating being sick and questioning what she did wrong to turning “sickness into a good thing. I remember thinking, Well, if I’m this sick, maybe none of my sisters will have sick kids, because what are the chances of having so many chronically sick people in the same family? Maybe I’m taking the hit for everybody. Kind of like that fellow Je… never mind” (60). I have to say that before I met so many others with Still’s, I felt that way too.

At one point, Karen was bed-bound for quite a long time and it wasn’t until a famous friend stepped in that she got the right kind of care – and found out how close to death she really was. Luckily, she got the right kind of care, including MTX and prednisone, to shrink her granuloma and really save her life.

In the middle of all of this, she started working again and met the love of her life even if she didn’t know it yet. She never really took the steps to educate him on what happens with her disease, how rare her case is, and how little the chances of her surviving this were. He found out all of this on his own, around the time they decided to get married.

I grew up thinking Duff (Karen’s nickname) was the coolest. She was the epitome of early 90s style, with her short hair and signature 90s outfits. She really was all over, from her movie roles to MTV to Revlon ads. She is one of the first models I remember, and she even admits that many people liked her as a model because she was beautiful, yes, but an achievable beautiful – normal girl beautiful instead of Cindy Crawford drop dead gorgeous. To find out that she deals, on a daily basis, with similar feelings and pains as I do was shocking to me.

I really recommend this book. There are so many feelings and issues Duff deals with that many people with chronic illness also go through, and it made me feel less alone. It was also comforting to read the chapter written by her husband and to get more insight into how it may affect relationships.

I’d like to share some further quotes from this book. Some are from a chapter written by her husband, John, and they are notated as such:

Even when I felt able to, I didn’t want to go out, I didn’t want to face people and be judged, be compared to my old self. I didn’t want to have people casually ask me how I was doing. I’d either have to lie or come out and say, “I’m really ill.” I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to tell the truth, either. I didn’t want to talk about my illness because I couldn’t quite believe it myself. I withdrew from even my closest friends because I was ashamed, and I didn’t want to reveal my weakness. I was too independent and too embarrassed to ask for help. I didn’t want to burden my friends. (74)

As I became comfortable around other people again, I did start letting my friend pitch in for me in practical ways, like bringing me dinner and running errands. But I’d needed to know that they were doing it because they loved me, not because they pitied me… helped me appreciate that my parents were helping me out of love, not as a duty. (80)

[Check out page 95 for tips on how to have a comfy hospital stay]

What I loved from the first about John was his character. He’s a decent, genteel human being. And I know John doesn’t love me because I’m a model. He got to know me when I was at my absolute worst, and he love all of me, including the disease. (133)

[John writing] Duff hadn’t shared any information about her disease with me, so I felt like I was going through my parents’ drawers, seeing stuff that I wasn’t allowed to see [looking up sarcoidosis issues & survival rates, etc]. I was so scared and shocked that I didn’t know how to deal with it. It was like reading somebody’s journal, and I felt embarrassed I had gone on the Web and looked up the information. I had to talk to someone, so I called my mother. “John, remember the important thing is that you’ve fallen in love with her. Deal with that,” she said. “That’s what’s important, the feeling you have for her, not the feeling that you think she has about what she’s going through. You don’t necessarily know what she’s going through.” (156)

[John} I also didn’t say, “I love you… we’re in this together.” We’re not in it together. She’s fighting it, and I’m helping her fight it, but I’m not sick. I can’t imagine how sick she is. We’re in it together in the sense that we’re a couple, but my role is to help her live the nonsick part of her life. I planned dinners, or vacations, or an afternoon of kayaking. If I knew that she wasn’t feeling well, I’d say, “You know what, let’s stay in tonight and watch a movie.” Instead of staying in because we has to, because Duff wasn’t well enough to go out, all of a sudden we had something to do together inside. (157)

[John] Here’s this person that you love who’s sick, you don’t want to see them sick, you don’t want to see them suffering, you don’t want to see them in pain. Your instinct is to do something, to help in any way you can. Everybody deals with being sick in a different way, and the way Duff deals with it is to take it on by herself. I had to realize that being sick was her job at the time. Taking it on herself gave her the strength she needed. (159)

[John] I really admire Duff. It’s kind of rare to find yourself in a relationship with somebody who’s your hero. I’m married to my hero. What better thing could you possibly imagine? I have so much respect for how she’s dealt with being sick. It puts a lot of things that have come up in my life into perspective. (160-1)

[John] Duff is utterly contemptuous of people who tell her, “This is going to make you a stronger person,” or, “Think of all the good things that come out of being sick,” and that attitude is something that I latched onto from the very beginning. There’s nothing good that comes out of being sick. It’s how you deal with being sick. I don’t think I’m a better person because I’ve helped Duff face her illness, and I have no idea if it’s making me stronger. (161)

[Visit pg 174 for tips on how to spot quacks & scams]

I do believe your body has the power to heal itself, which is why we don’t die of common colds. Whether you call that the immune system or vis medicatrix naturae [healing of nature] doesn’t matter to me. But there are times when your body can’t handle the assault it’s under. Sarcoidosis was a mutiny in my body – renegade cells attacked my spinal cord, lungs, eyes, and skin. Vis medicatrix naturae wasn’t going to cut it for me. (182)

And I’m aghast over the New Age morality that implies that only the poor bastards that fight the hardest against their sickness will eventually kick it, or that it was something internal that brought on the disease, whether it was stress, or imbalanced chakras, or whatever. It’s all just a moderately sophisticated way of blaming the victim, and that’s cowardly, the last refuge of the pathetic. When people suggest that overwork brought on my sarcoidosis, I always say, “I’ve seen hard work. It’s a tiny Dominican woman wrestling a 225-pound invalid into a bathtub. Modeling is not hard work.” As for the idea that I brought my illness on myself, why on earth would I do that when I was at the top of my game? (183-4)

[Visit pg 201 for outpatient tips or 195 for a coward’s coupon asking a former doc to forward your records]

Then, when it dawned on me that yes, I was indeed sick, shame set in. I experienced an illogical embarrassment about being sick, as if I’d brought it on myself, and that people might look down on me if they knew I was ill. I was at the top of my game, in the best shape of my life, I had more job offers than I could possibly take, how could something like this happen? What had I done wrong? I felt weak. I was very apologetic to my parents. I felt I’d failed them as a child. I was ashamed because I didn’t know how to be a sick person, and I was afraid I’d do the wrong thing somehow. I couldn’t face my friends because I couldn’t face myself. I was embarrassed that I’d somehow lost my mobility and my happy-go-lucky attitude. Shame was more crippling at this stage than even the physical effects of being sick, which were considerable. (205)

Despite my deepest fears, it’s not my independence I’ve lost – it’s my innocence. I never took anything seriously, from my career as a model to my relationships. I still try not to take anything too seriously, but that attitude doesn’t come as easily as it did. I’m no longer able to ignore my own mortality hovering in the background. (219)

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