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Complete Book Reviews

From Publishers Weekly, Spring 2006

Garrison, a 37-year-old Boston-area woman with a great husband and a fine three-year old boy, was busy at work when she suddenly felt "a throbbing pain in the right side of her head... a volcano erupting inside her skull." The next thing she knew, her family was gathered around her hospital bed, and she couldn't feel the whole left side of her body. She'd had a massive brain hemorrhage and had only survived thanks to some very risky surgery. Doctors were divided about why she'd had this stroke; indeed, Garrison spent the next weeks and months fending off a dire diagnosis, vasculitis, from the pseudonymous "Dr. Jerk."

Most of the professionals she dealt with were negative, wanting her to accept that she'd never walk again or have a full, satisfying life. But Garrison, with the help of her supportive husband, brothers, parents, friends and a few gifted therapists and doctors, managed an extraordinary recovery. By book's end, she is walking (albeit with difficulties), actively parenting again, trying to sue the makers of the cold syrup that triggered her stroke and giving motivational talks to doctors' groups. Her humorous, tear-jerking, struggle-to-recover-against-all-odds story is a lesson in finding silver linings.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
KIRKUS REVIEW, Spring 2006

Wisecracking memoirs of a young woman who suffered a stroke and is still
working to recover from it.Garrison was only 37 when the stroke occurred in the right hemisphere of her brain, leaving her with impaired vision and balance and paralysis on the left side of her body. The author writes disconcertingly in the third person in the two first chapters, switches to the second person for the following chapters, then changes to the first person for the final two chapters. Possibly her intention is to reflect changes in her perception of herself as she experiences a devastating life-altering injury and slowly comes to terms with what has happened to her. Garrison, however, is not subtle; she yells, curses, cries (in private), jokes, belittles, rages and demands. Doctors she does not like she dubs Dr. Jerk and Dr. Panic, and she uses quick sarcasm on unnamed nurses, aides, therapists and others who don't measure up. Her humor may sometimes be forced and a bit heavy-handed, but it is most often directed at herself. 

She firmly believes that attitude is the secret to success, and her determination to survive and to get better sees her through some exceedingly rough times. Her early excursions outside the hospital are nearly disastrous yet truly funny as are her adventures at home with a three-year-old. While chemotherapy is forced upon her, she explores other avenues on her own: acupuncture, Botox, a faith healer at a friend's church and even a teenager in a coma who is believed by some to be in direct contact with Jesus. In the end, there is no magic cure, and her recovery can only ever be partial. If there is a message here, it's for anyone who's had a bruising encounter with the health-care system.
The inspiring story of a feisty woman who stands up, literally and figuratively, and fights for her rights as a human being.

Booklist, Spring 2006

At 37, Garrison, then the mother of a three-year-old boy, suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage that left her with a physically devastated body and more spiritual resolve than she’d ever had in her life. Armed with a sense of humor that has a real edge to it, she overcame obstacles that would have killed lesser spirits. From the outset, she also knew much more about what it takes to recover than her attending medical professionals, whom she dubs with such tags as Dr. Jerk, Dr. Bleak, and Nurse Doom––monikers that seem deserved for such behaviors as labeling her “in denial” because she refused to accept tacitly the prognostication of total paralysis for the rest of her life. 

Not medical care’s prettiest face, to be sure. Unsatisfied by Dr. Jerk’s diagnosis, which would have required a lifetime of chemotherapy, Garrison sought a second opinion. What she got, after the most superficial review of her case, was rubber-stamping. But eventually she walked again. Inspirational is too weak a word to describe Garrison’s memoir. ––Donna Chavez

Elle Magazine Review, Spring 2006

"When an unexplained massive brain hemorrhage left the author unable to walk or comb her own hair, the prognosis was stark: She'd either die of an incurable, inexplicable illness or be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. What doctors didn't take into account was the fierce optimism and even fiercer wit (her nicknames for hospital staff included Dr. Panic and Nurse Doom) that would bring one patient back from the brink. 

Equal parts mystery (as Fox Garrison and the gifted "Dr. Neuro" unravel the cause behind the sudden stroke), horror story (the Byzantine byways of a blinkered medical community could give Stephen King a run for his money), and stand-up monologue (the only thing Fox Garrison DIDN'T lose use of was her sense of humor), Don't Leave Me This Way's unique tone and utterly un-maudlin appeal is perhaps best summed up by its spunky yet spiky subtitle: Or When I Get Back on My Feet You'll Be Sorry."

Boston Magazine Review, Spring 2006

Garrison was a 37-year-old wife, mother, and business executive when she had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. Doctors were baffled as to the cause and doubted she'd live--though survive she did. In an inspiring tale, the fierce Middleton resident recounts battles with nurses, obnoxious doctors, and her own unforgiving body in a moving story that pulls readers through her most humbling and triumphant moments.--Blythe Copeland 


Chicago Sun Times, July 9, 2006

Julia Fox Garrison was an ordinary working mother, delighted with her husband and young son, happy in her job, settled and satisfied.

And then came the tidal wave: at age 37, she suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and a stroke that nearly killed her and l eft her permanently disabled. Not everybody could turn this into a funny, irreverent story, but that's what Garrison does in Don't Leave Me This Way: Or When I Get Back on My Feet You'll Be Sorry. It's as if your wise-cracking next-door neighbor, the one who can always come up with a biting yet hysterically funny story in any disaster, turned a handicap into a stand-up routine.

Garrison has an edgy sense of irony that prevents the horrendous events -- the brain surgery to save her life, the callous doctors, the hideous swollen head the nurses won't even let her see -- from becoming too maudlin or depressing. For instance, as she's being wheeled into a hospital room for an angiogram, the music playing in the background is James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," a song about a woman who dies.

"'Not a great song, guys,' you mutter." The nurse assistant then offers her a Carpenters CD. "It occurs to you that Karen C arpenter croaked too," Garrison notes wryly.

So the all-too-serious medical world encounters the classic "problem patient" -- she challenges everything, wants what she wants, refuses to admit that she might be limited in some way by her stroke. She tells everyone that she is going to have another child. The doctors tell her she'll have to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life since her left side seems to be rendered practically useless, but Garrison insists that she'll walk again.

One of the great lessons from this book is that Garrison eventually proves most of the medical predictions wrong, except, sadly, the part about having another baby. One of her first doctors, whom she dubs Dr. Jerk, proclaims that she has a rare form of a disease called cerebral vasculitis, even though the tests don't indicate evidence of it. The real answer is that Dr. Jerk and his team can't pinpoint the cause of her hemorrhage. So Dr. Jerk announces that because of the cerebral vasculi tis, she's going to have to undergo regular rounds of chemotherapy for the rest of her life. He seems offended when Garrison has her doubts.

Garrison reinforces what many of us are finally coming to suspect -- doctors know far less than we think about the human body. We should never stop asking questions.


A second lesson is the reminder that stuff happens, and it happens all the time to young, healthy people who are minding their own business, getting exercise, avoiding cigarettes -- the whole shebang. And yet any day we can be hit by life's versions of "gotcha" -- cancer, MS, ALS, diabetes. A car can run us over. Our plane can go down. We can pick up a nasty flesh-eating virus in a hospital and lose our leg. Gotcha.

And yet Garrison tells us that her injury was really a "great gift. I say that because I didn't recognize all the blessings I had before my stroke. Back then, I was only looking at the obvious blessings: home, family, and job. Now I know, as I neve r knew before, what a gift from God it is to sit up, to walk, to eat, to drive, to have family time, to be independent, and to share this life with someone who, you know with absolute certainty, truly loves you." Although that sounds right on the edge of chicken soup-book territory, Garrison doesn't offer up her little speech until the final chapter of the book, long after we've grown to love this earthy, unsentimental woman.

You just know that Garrison was probably a royal pain in the ass well before her stroke; hard-headed, fervent, opinionated, strong.

So readers can bring this book to the beach and laugh out loud at the slapstick scenes -- the poor manicurist who tries to paint the nails on her curled hand, and ends up fleeing as polish smears all over. The time when she slips on ice and falls under the car. The time she decides to make Mary Chung's spicy noodles. She decides that choosing to make this elaborate recipe is indisputable evidence of brain damage, aft er all. Well, it's funny in the book.

There are also moments showing Garrison's incredible sensitivity, such as the connection she develops with a woman in the rehab hospital who howls uncontrollably day and night. At first, the howling drives Garrison nuts, but then she asks to meet with the woman face to face. Although the other woman can't respond, Garrison talks to her for a long time.

"Her eyes seem to speak to you, even though her mouth can't. She is listening very closely. You can see it in her eyes. You think you can see her soul in her eyes, too. There is no way you can judge her again," Garrison writes.

Although the very end of the book slips too easily into the saccharine, almost as if Garrison just got tired of being the strong one all the time, it mostly sidesteps the treacle. What we do get are useful life lessons: Make no assumptions about that lady in the wheelchair. Speak up if you need something. Challenge authority. Oh, and never turn down a chance to drink champagne.

Debra Bruno is an editor in Washington, D.C.



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