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Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31821db369
Medicine and the Arts

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: [Excerpts]

Bailey, Elisabeth Tova

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Adapted from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (pages 20–21, 33, 154, 145, 146, 161) by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. © 2010 by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For more information about this award-winning book, please visit www.elisabethtovabailey.com.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey finds herself bedridden and isolated for months, confined to the four walls of a strange room far from home, debilitated by a severe relapse from a mitochondrial myopathy, with only a simple gastropod, a snail, as her daily companion. Loneliness and loss mar this existence, but the snail brings her comfort and purpose and a growing insight into the human condition, even long after returning the snail to its native habitat.

After being transported from the woods, the snail had emerged from its shell into the alien territory of my room, with no clue as to where it was or how it had arrived; the lack of vegetation and the desert-like surroundings must have seemed strange. The snail and I were both living in an altered landscape not of our choosing. I figured we shared a sense of loss and displacement.

Each morning there was a moment, before I had fully awakened, when my mind still groped its clumsy way back to consciousness, my body not yet remembered, reality not yet acknowledged. That moment was always full of pure, sweet, uncontrollable hope. I did not ask for this hope to come; I did not even want it, for it trailed disappointment in its wake. Yet there it was, hovering within me—hope that my illness had vanished with the night and my health had returned magically with daybreak. But that moment always passed, my eyes opened, and reality flooded in; nothing had changed at all.

By day, the strangeness of my situation was sharpest. I was bed-bound at a time when my friends and peers were moving forward in their careers and raising families. Yet the snails daytime sleeping habits gave me a fresh perspective; I was not the only one resting away the days. The snail naturally slept by day, even on the sunniest of afternoons. Its companionship was a comfort to me and buffered my feelings of uselessness.

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I was fond of the elegant way the snail waved its tentacles as it moved serenely along, and I loved to watch it drink water from the mussel shell. Several times I was lucky enough to see it grooming; it arched its neck over the curved edge of its own shell and cleaned the rim carefully with its mouth, like a cat licking its fur on the back of its neck. Usually the snail slept on its side, and at these times the striae, perpendicular to the spiraling whorls of its shell, reminded me of the patterns of stripes on my old tiger cat, Zephyr, when he would curl into a nap.

Though holding and reading a book for any length of time involved levels of strength and concentration that were beyond me, watching the snail was completely relaxing. I observed without thinking, looking into the terrarium simply to feel connected to another creature; another life was being lived just a few inches away.

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I could never have guessed what would get me through this past year—a woodland snail and its offspring; I honestly don't think I would have made it otherwise. Watching another creature go about its life ... somehow gave me, the watcher, purpose too. If life mattered to the snail, and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on. ...

The snail and I had been fellow captives, but now we had both returned to our natural habitats. As I tried to make my life livable within a few rooms of my house, I wondered how the snail was coping in its native woods. Though I was home, I was still not free from the boundaries of illness. I thought of the terrarium's limited space, and how the snail had seemed content as it ate, explored and fulfilled a life cycle. This gave me hope that perhaps I, too could still fulfill dreams, even if they were changed dreams.

A last look at the stars and then to sleep. Lots to do at whatever pace I can go. I must remember the snail. Always remember the snail.

© 2011 Association of American Medical Colleges

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