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Thursday, February 29, 2024

ILLNESS AS A METAPHOR

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Half the healing is by the body itself and it can do its job if there are signals mentally and emotionally that this is possible. The medical staff around you, the way you are treated with concern and care, the hospital atmosphere, all build these blocks of healing

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Illness, the American essayist Susan Sontag said, was a metaphor. Though I never figured what that could imply: was it a metaphor for one’s state of mind, or of the larger state of the cosmos that often got reflected in our own ill health? Or, the language used to describe illness? Nonetheless, when I recently fell sick, with spells of dizziness because of an ear infection, all my readings and
philosophies came to nought. Literally. I, who dislike going to hospitals begged to be taken to one, and when the ambulance came and I was rolled into it, far from feeling any fear, I thought to myself, so here I am in one of those ambulances, going through traffic with sirens and lights warning us that there is a sick person in there who needs immediate attention. Going in an ambulance was not really on my bucket list, but at least, that’s done for now. For another, all that internal debate about what to wear when I step out had
to be given a short shrift. I literally went in the faded kaftan I was wearing, and worse, could not get into even slippers — not even the ordinary ones that I wear at home, forget the rose gold wedges. When I was ready to be discharged after a few hours (since it was nothing serious that entailed a stay, which would have added to the drama), I thought to myself, well, there comes a moment in life when you forget to obsess about how you look, or even have the time to pull out a nice dress! And it struck me, how vain we human beings are, and how unnecessarily we worry about our physical appearances. If, out of the dozens of saris or kurtas that I had, I didn’t have the have the time or care to pull one out to wear, it showed that these were no more than accoutrements to dress up a fragile body that itself is impermanent!

At the hospital itself, as nurses poked and examined me, I felt a sense of detachment, even amusement. The body was ageing after all, and not all its parts would be in perfect working condition; though we all hope it will be as we pump collagens, creams and muscle-tone builders. At the end of it all, if anything, I was happy the body was in good working condition, and it would serve me for a few more years, hopefully. Sure, like everyone else, I had well founded apprehensions about visiting hospitals. But the minute I arrived, I was made to feel comfortable by the staff (not certainly because I was rich or famous, neither of which I am; in fact, Amitabh Bachchan too was here a few days prior to my visit) but because of the overall philosophy of the hospital that patients needed to be treated with kindness, patience and empathy. And I have to admit, everyone from the consultants to the ground staff were far from being cursory or brusque as you would expect in a big hospital such as this. I know in the US, doctors will take time off to explain the procedures and treatments, but here, even a street side practitioner will treat the patient as a lowly being who doesn’t deserve
attention, or imagine his google-inspired questions worthy of an answer.
I am convinced a good physician heals, not cures, and that his sympathetic touch and smile ( assuring you, he’s in control of the situation) does much to calm the overwrought patient, which would in turn send the feel-good hormones. Half the healing is done by the body itself and it can do its job if there are signals mentally and emotionally, that this is possible. The medical staff around you, the way you are treated with concern, the hospital atmosphere, all build these blocks of healing. 

However, in all this, I had these niggling guilt pangs that was I getting privileged care, and that if we were to call ourselves an  equitable society, the care I received must be accessible to all, the man on the street as much as the chief minister of the state; that the consultant physician should show the same compassion and meticulousness in examining a VIP (a disgusting word so
rampant in India) as he would to the majority of patients who have pink or white cards. More than anything, good health (as pharma companies and hospitals don’t fail to remind us) should be within reach, and affordable. We know the poor and the middle classes go into debt among other things because of prohibitive healthcare.
In fact, I’ve loved the idea of a family doctor who made house calls, knew you from the moment you were born (maybe even delivered you), saw you through your teenage pimples, marriage and children. He may not have high funda equipment but he was there when the family needed him, giving simple cures and concoctions that somehow worked. Modern medicine is a miracle for sure. But it is the physician who’s the magician. As for me, I’ve survived to tell the tale.

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