Incurable and Intolerable: Chronic Disease and Slow Death in Nineteenth Century France

Incurable and Intolerable: Chronic Disease and Slow Death in Nineteenth Century France

Incurable and Intolerable: Chronic Disease and Slow Death in Nineteenth Century France

Incurable and Intolerable: Chronic Disease and Slow Death in Nineteenth Century France

Synopsis

Terminal illness and the pain and anguish it brings are experiences that have touched millions of people in the past and continue to shape our experience of the present. Hospital machines that artificially support life and monitor vital signs beg the question: Is there not anything that medical science can offer as solace?

Incurable and Intolerable looks at the history of incurable illness from a variety of perspectives, including those of doctors, patients, families, religious counsel, and policy makers. This compellingly documented and well-written history illuminates the physical, emotional, social, and existential consequences of chronic disease and terminal illness, and offers an original look at the world of palliative medicine, politics, religion, and charity. Revealing the ways in which history can shed new light on contemporary thinking, Jason Szabo encourages a more careful scrutiny of today's attitudes, policies, and practices surrounding "imminent death" and its effects on society.

Excerpt

It is extremely difficult to tell someone that their illness is incurable and that they are going to die. I know only too well, because I have had to do it often. I have spent my professional life treating chronically ill patients, most of whom were infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Before the advent of effective antiretroviral drugs, a diagnosis of AIDS was essentially a death sentence. With little to offer them, I watched hundreds of people go on to die a slow and agonizing death. Most of them were my age, or slightly older. None of them wanted to die. In trying to help them, I realized that AIDS was, in many ways, particularly troubling. It was seen by many, including some of my colleagues, as a disease of homosexuals. As such, many were uncomfortable in the face of it. But everyone at my teaching hospital struggled with something even more basic: the knowledge that, no matter how hard we tried, the patient would eventually die. As time went on, I realized that incurability exerted a powerful effect on all of us—patients, families, and caregivers alike.

That prognosis could so profoundly influence people’s attitudes and behaviors toward dying and death is hardly unique to our time. While working as a medical historian on the controversies surrounding the French healing shrine Lourdes, I encountered innumerable references to a group of individuals known as “the incurables” (les incurables). By the turn of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of incurably ill people traveled to the Pyrenees each year in the hope of being miraculously cured. Curious, I decided to find out who these people were. I wanted to learn more about their lives and their experiences.

Much of what I discovered surprised me. I learned, for example, that the term incurable was generally applied to a series of chronic diseases and only rarely to acute illnesses. Some of these disorders, including scrofula . . .

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