Constance Studer


Body Language: First of All Do No Harm
Purdue University Press, forthcoming Spring, 2009.

In 1947, the Reverend Lucien Adams, a Methodist minister, was admitted to Toledo State Hospital and never returned home. Using vivid scenes and dialogue, Constance Studer tells her family’s experience with prefrontal lobotomy, as well as other chronic illnesses that family members experience. Medical literature compares lobotomy to “weeding a garden with a hand grenade.” After the grenade went off, shrapnel rained down on the entire family.

Lucien Adams was preaching in a small church in rural Ohio when his wife gave birth to a baby girl with spina bifida. The baby died in the parsonage when only eight months old. When the Methodist Bishop told Lucien he would be moved to yet another church, he became angry and fled the building. The police found him sitting in his car, unable to remember how to drive. He was given a psychiatric evaluation and admitted to Toledo State Hospital. On the consent form, his wife wrote, “Lucien needs rest.” While undergoing electric shock therapy, Lucien suffered a heart attack. Psychiatrists told Evelyn that her husband’s only hope for returning home was to undergo a prefrontal lobotomy. Lucien never returned home to live.

Body Language explores the themes of health and illness throughout the book. Connie’s mother married Dr. Browne, the doctor who had pronounced her baby sister dead many years before. Because her new father had a son and daughter, her family doubled overnight. Returning to the small town where her father had been a minister was the first of many circles that would be closed in her life. Because her stepfather was the only doctor in town, she saw first-hand how compassionate medical care could benefit the community. This was an important influence in her decision to become a registered nurse.

Leaving and returning are recurrent themes in this book of related essays. Connie and her husband lived in Amsterdam while he was pursuing his doctorate; they returned four years later for the birth of their son. They spent a summer in Boulder, Colorado and then years later Connie and her son returned to make Boulder their new home. While working in Intensive Care-Coronary Care, Connie completed a master’s degree in Creative Writing. Writing is like nursing in many ways. Neither writers nor nurses ever feel that what they have to offer is good enough. Neither are ever done. Close attention must be paid to details or both the poem or patient could die. Both writers and nurses must keep the faith, persevere, see it through difficult crises. People are the most important ingredient in both professions. You must be willing to reassess at a moment’s notice and to embark on another course. Sometimes radical surgery is needed for it to heal. Telling a story, listening to someone else’s, is what sacred means. Connie’s life was forever changed when she was given a hepatitis B vaccine in 1983 by her employer. Within a few days of receiving the second dose, she became ill and entered the world of the chronically ill. Even though she’d always thought she was a compassionate nurse, it was not until she lay in a hospital bed herself, that she understood what patients went through.

Constance Studer uses her family’s story to illustrate larger ethical dilemmas in which modern medical professionals find themselves. The history of why prefrontal lobotomies were performed on patients is explored and why only a few physicians raised dissenting voices against this mutilating surgery. Both the author and her father were injured by medical treatments that were intended to help. Her father’s lobotomy caused irreversible brain damage. Connie’s vaccine-related illness caused systemic lupus. She cites an article by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. which investigates our government cover-up of a mercury/autism scandal. Thimerosal, the ethylmercury preservative used in vaccine preparation, appears to be responsible for the epidemic of autism and other neurological disorders among our children. In 2007, one child out of 150 suffers from autism or other neurological-cognitive disabilities. This book is a plea to the medical-pharmaceutical-government complex to ban the use of thimerosal in the production of vaccines and to re-evaluate the number of vaccines administered to our infants and children.

Body Language is a testament to survival, to the healing power of nature. Connie built a home by the shores of Grand Lake, the lake the Indians called “Spirit Lake.” Watching the river fill up the lake year after year renewed her faith in the sense of continuity and progression. Grand Lake, with its bird calls and bombastic waves, was a magic marriage between the visible and invisible, a landscape that refreshed the eye, cleansed the heart, recharged the spirit. Sometimes the body sings hymns, sometimes the blues but always the body hums along. Healing is a process, a journey toward balance, connectedness, meaning, wholeness, rather than an outcome.

Prayer To A Purple God
Mellen Poetry Press, 1996, 2004.

"Each poem in Prayer To A Purple God resonates in primal intensity and regard. Each poem focuses on a health emergency, the body's vulnerability, the acts of doctors and nurses, and the vivid inner perceptions of those involved. Simultaneously, astonishingly, all are painted in terms of larger contexts and presences of earth. In the critical care unit, one patient is half woman and half bird, one crawls across the glass in an aquarium like a snail, one has a torch in his skull, one has a physician illuminate "her arteries and shelves/of bone in a ruby gloom, one is held/within white-curved wings." Though grounded in the profound struggles and emotions of the hospital, many of these poems are reminiscent of Neruda's odes in how they focus and yet open through metaphor and association. This is one powerful, compassionate and unique book of poems."
--James Grabill, author of Poem Rising Out of the Earth, Oregon Book Award for Poetry, 1995.

Selected Works

Creative nonfiction-Essays
Body Language: First of All Do No Harm
Body Language is a wake-up call to American medical professionals to rethink the Hippocratic dictum: "First of all, do no harm." Studer uses her family's stories to illustrate larger ethical dilemmas in which modern medicine is embroiled. Medical treatments are given with the presumption they will help, but her father's prefrontal lobotomy caused irreversible brain damage. Studer's Hepatitis B immunization caused systemic lupus. There are studies showing a link between the autism epidemic and the use of thimerosol as a preservative in vaccine preparation.
Prayer To A Purple God
"These are sharp-edged, dark poems that speak a dangerous truth about the health of humans in these hard times of our earth. They reflect the changed landscape, the changed life of the body of woman, the body of God, the body of this land with its newly hazardous terrain. Yet there is light here, water, air, prairie grasses, and heart. These are poems to pay attention to, about what it means when health slips like a ring from earth's finger."
--Linda Hogan, author of Solar Storms, Dwellings, A Spiritual History of the Living World and The Book of Medicines.


Find Authors