The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition

The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition

The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition

The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition

Excerpt

During the early 1960s, in my second and third years at medical school, I encountered several patients whose powerful experiences of illness, at either pole of the course of life, fixed my interest on the intimate and manifold ways by which illness comes to affect our lives.

The first patient was a pathetic seven-year-old girl who had been badly burned over most of her body. She had to undergo a daily ordeal of a whirlpool bath during which the burnt flesh was tweezered away from her raw, open wounds. This experience was horribly painful to her. She screamed and moaned and begged the medical team, whose efforts she stubbornly fought off, not to hurt her anymore. My job as a neophyte clinical student was to hold her uninjured hand, as much to reassure and calm her as to enable the surgical resident to quickly pull away the dead, infected tissue in the pool of swirling water, which rapidly turned pinkish, then bloody red. Clumsily, with a beginner's uncertainty of how to proceed, I tried to distract this little patient from her traumatic daily confrontation with terrible pain. I tried talking to her about her home, her family, her school—almost anything that might draw her vigilant attention away from her suffering. I could barely tolerate the daily horror: her screams, dead tissue floating in the blood-stained water, the peeling flesh, the oozing wounds, the battles over cleaning and bandaging. Then one day, I made contact. At wit's end, angered at my own ignorance and impotence, uncertain what to do besides clutching the small hand, and in despair over her unrelenting anguish, I found myself asking her to tell me how she tolerated it . . .

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