Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Many years ago, my wife Ronnie and I heard Norman Cousins hold forth at UC San Francisco Medical Center. His popular book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, described his experience with a galloping case of ankylosing spondylitis, a painful savaging of the spine. Cousins wrote that he was dissatisfied with his hospital-based treatment, so moved to a five-star hotel next door (at a fifth the price) and got his doctors to agree to see him there and to restrict blood-drawing to a single stick a day. He discontinued most of his medications, and instead treated himself with megadoses of vitamin C and laughter in the form of Marx brothers and Candid Camera films. Under this regimen his spondylitis gradually evaporated, a fact corroborated by his doctors’ testimonials.

Cousins told his story to this audience of physicians, nurses and students, and then asked for questions. A white-coated man stood and asked, “Mr. Cousins, laughter is no doubt a positive thing, but how could we devise a double-blind controlled study in order to know objectively whether it aids healing?”

Ronnie has frequently been nominated for the Nobel Manners Prize, but this was too much even for her. She stood up and said, “If you don’t know right now that laughter aids healing, I'm afraid there’s something seriously wrong with you.”

I must have had her comment in mind years later when an oncologist at a medical center where I facilitated cancer support groups challenged the validity of my work. The kindly old chief of medicine summoned me to his office. “Dr. T. claims you’re doing witchcraft,” he said. “Go see him and calm him down, willya?”

So Dr. T. and I met. He said he didn’t approve of support groups because there was no way to measure their efficacy. “Give a hundred patients with strep infections the right ‘cillin,” he said, “and eighty-five will get cured. That’s solid numbers. But can you apply anything like that to cancer patients in a support group?”

Glancing at a photo on his desk, I asked, “How do you know you love your wife?”

He frothed and tossed me out. I can only hope that little seed has taken root in him, and grown into the operant notion that we’re composed of more than meat.

Anyone who’s ever experienced sickness, for example, recognizes its simultaneous heads and tails. Heads is the disease process itself—the infection, the tumor, the physical and chemical derangements. Tails is feeling like hell.

Heads and tails are dimensionally different. Physical disease occurs in the physical world, but our emotions are admittedly subjective. Disease can be seen, touched, measured. Suffering can’t. When I ask conference participants, “Who here has experienced the most suffering?”, they laugh because they know suffering will never been seen under a microscope or reported in a blood test. Yet along with love, humor, and other feelings, it’s an undeniable ingredient of life’s juice.

We’ll know the healthcare reform discussion is finally getting real—instead of just focusing on who’ll pay for what—when we accept that diagnosing and treating sick folks’ disease alone is exactly half of what’s needed.

No comments:

Post a Comment