REVIEW: incurable optimist: living with illness and chronic hope by Jennifer Cramer-Miller

Reviewed by Rachael J. Hughes

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A half yellow lemon that has a red striped straw in the middle is seen against a light blue background with the words incurable optimist in red above it; the author's name, Jennifer Cramer-Miller, also appearsWhat would you do if you were 22 years old and heard the word “incurable?” Fresh out of college, with a good job, a good boyfriend, and a great Seattle apartment, Jennifer Cramer-Miller heard this diagnosis. She was afflicted with an autoimmune disorder that was causing kidney failure. Forced to return to her Minnesota home, she found herself in dialysis, and visiting with more doctors than friends. As her friends were carrying on with their normal twenty-something lifestyles, Cramer-Miller embarked on an exhausting journey of trying to stay alive.

Yet incurable optimist: living with illness and chronic hope by Jennifer Cramer-Miller (She Writes Press, 2023) is a story of incurable hope. It’s a story about people coming together to help Cramer-Miller as she struggles to survive. Along the way, she meets a storehouse of people who inspire her and help her on her journey—from dialysis nurses to suffering patients to loyal, lifelong friends and family. Because of them, she is not alone as she fights to stay alive. “Literally and figuratively, I was drowning in myself: drowning in the trapped fluid in my lungs, drowning in my existence, drowning in this disease that pulled me into the water and refused to let go. I struggled to come to the surface.” Yet even as she paints a vivid picture of experiencing kidney failure, she is never self-pitying or whiny.

She tells the tale well, using great metaphors and anecdotes to describe her almost two-decades long travesty with often preventable disease. Why preventable? She is an advocate for organ donation and helping underserved populations in their struggles. She touches on the fact that her experience was much better than that of minorities or poor people who often miss out on the chance to live, not only due to discrimination, but also because of the shortage of people who choose to be organ donors. “…I’ve navigated a rocky road since the age of twenty-two, my socioeconomic status and skin color were not roadblocks along the way. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many of my fellow kidney patients…Black individuals have a three to four times higher rate of kidney failure than whites. Hispanic and Latino individuals have a 1.3 times higher rate than whites. Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders also face a higher risk of kidney disease.” Cramer-Miller saw this injustice happen time and again as she surveyed the dialysis wards in her two-decades-long tenure with the malady.

Yet, as I mentioned before, this is a well-told story of hope, too. The author’s likable voice carries throughout the work, singing through the pages as we laugh, cry, and turn the pages in a flurry. We meet unshakeable characters like her mother; we read an unbelievable account of survival, and in the midst of it all, she finds a way to thrive, like plant tendrils in winter that remain green through the frost.

I highly recommend Jennifer Cramer-Miller’s incurable optimist. For those who enjoy well-written stories of survival, this is for you. For those who can relate to the medical treatment, and the unfortunate medical “mistreatment” of conditions, this also is for you. For those of you who enjoy a well-written, emotionally gripping piece, this also is for you. This is a must-read story of 2023. It is hard to believe it’s a nonfiction account. It truly is an enlivening tale of mind over matter.

Meet the Contributor

Rachael J. Hughes is an author and educator in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Us Girls: My Life Without a Uterus. She is currently working on children’s books, a chapbook, and a New Adult Fiction book. She loves Pearl Jam, cats, and giraffes.

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