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Health Library Can Help You Understand Just What Ails You

August 25, 1988|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

For the person who wanders out of the doctor's office with a body full of pain and a brain full of medical gobbledygook, help is at hand--at least for the double talk.

In a spacious, second-floor suite at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, the Health Education Library is providing books and magazines, audio and videocassettes in an effort to help people learn more about just what ails them.

Dr. Barbara Jessen, a neurologist who is president of the nonprofit Health Education Foundation, which set up the library, said it is one of only a handful she knows of in the nation that is aimed at the general public, walking the line between medical school libraries crammed with technical information and supermarket tabloids filled with information on how to look younger.

Jessen said the new library is "designed to enable the general public to become more knowledgeable about how to stay healthy.

"If they're not healthy," she said, the library may be able to explain "how to understand what's wrong with them and how to take better care of themselves with regards to their health state.

"Hopefully, (patients) can learn enough (so that) they can cooperate better with what the doctor says," Jessen said. "They'll understand why he's telling them the things he's telling them. They'll know their options, that they may not have gotten as well as they might otherwise have gotten from the physician."

Jessen said that yes, a doctor should explain all that, but sometimes doctors do not "have the time or the ability" to explain everything fully.

For Kerry DeWitt of Garden Grove, the library was, well, just what the doctor ordered.

DeWitt's 3-year-old son, Stephen, suffered from recurring bouts of pneumonia. "One day he would be fine, the next day he would be chronically ill, in the hospital, wheezing, coughing," she said.

After initial diagnoses of asthma, DeWitt took her son to a specialist who found a partial lung collapse and decided a lobe of the lung would have to be removed.

DeWitt, an assistant administrator for a cardiology laboratory near the building that houses the Health Education Library, said she remembered hearing that the library had opened shortly before.

"It really helped me to go over there," DeWitt said, "because I had no idea what the surgery was about, what kind of incisions they would have to make on him and what the risks are. So it was great to read up on it. It helped me a lot. . . . "

Puzzled about how to explain to her son what was in store for him, DeWitt asked the library's director, Dona Van Houghton, for help.

Van Houghton told DeWitt about a program at Childrens Hospital of Orange County that uses puppets to teach children what their operation will do, and DeWitt enrolled Stephen in the class.

Van Houghton is the only paid full-time worker at the library, and is assisted by half a dozen volunteers, most of whom come in once a week for several hours to research, catalogue or type materials. Given its location near the beach, the library unsurprisingly gets numerous questions on skin problems, Van Houghton said.

Many queries come in by telephone, Van Houghton said, leading her to scour the books and magazines on hand to contact others for help if information is not available.

She said that since taking the job she has been surprised to find that "I am a source of information for patients who need support groups or want a network of people who have had similar problems. So I'm connecting people with that kind of help, too."

"There was one woman whose son was critically injured . . . in a bicycle accident, with a head injury. He was out of state and (his mother) wanted to know if there was some place here in Orange County that she could transfer him to not only for care but also for rehabilitation. That took a little bit of doing." In the end, Van Houghton provided the answer.

Since the library opened April 1, the number of people telephoning or dropping by to read magazines or watch medical videos has increased steadily, Van Houghton said. For the first two weeks of August, more than 30 people called or dropped by, she said, not a bad figure for a facility still trying to get its existence known to the public.

Library supporters said the information they are providing is designed to steer a middle course between medical school libraries, which contain publications with topics such as "Acetylcholine Sweatspot Test for Autonomic Denervation," and supermarket tabloids, with advice on how to lose 40 pounds by rolling over in your sleep twice each night.

Although Van Houghton does stock publications with technical information, much of the shelves are stacked with materials such as the Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter, the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter and the Mayo Clinic newsletter.

There is also a section of books for children, plus a section with publications for those wanting to know more about a specific illness.

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