Fighting illness may be critical to survival and serves a vital role. However, when it comes to health, fighting illness is only a piece of a vastly more complex puzzle. Healing doesn’t necessarily come just because we try to beat illness out of our bodies. We must also nurture and cultivate healing for our health care to be complete.
When patients with chronic illness come to the hospital, the doctors and nurses beat illness back into submission. We administer antibiotics, open blocked vessels, remove tumors, balance blood chemistries, lower blood pressure, stop bleeding. We fight to keep people alive. We often succeed and people are returned to their prior baseline level of functioning. In the case of an otherwise healthy person, this is the desired outcome. The current treatment-based model works well for healthy patients with an acute medical problem. Take a healthy person who breaks a bone, or sustains a wound, or even gets an infection. Medical doctors provide essential treatments such as splinting, suturing, or antibiotics. The doctors, the nurses and all the ancillary staff believe that these patients will get better. The patients believe they will get better. There is very little, if any, doubt about the healing process. Add some time to the natural healing that takes place within the body, and voila: the patient is restored to their baseline health.
Contrast this with the estimated 133 million Americans with chronic illness. Over 80% of health care spending and the vast majority of health care visits today are from people with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, allergies, obstructive lung disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, headaches, depression, high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, obesity, chronic fatigue, and cancer, to name a few. With standard medical treatments, these people are not restored to a baseline disease-free level of health. They receive treatment for their symptoms and management for their disease. They learn to live with symptoms. They adjust. Doctors, nurses and even the patients themselves typically believe that these chronic conditions are irreversible. Worse still, many of these illnesses can be progressive and deadly. Patients are given an ominous prognosis that can shape their future reality.
As sophisticated and technologically advanced as modern health care has become, it is vastly incomplete. We focus on the physical body as if that were the only level where illness exists. We neglect physical, emotional, mental and spiritual roots of illness. When illness arises in our bodies, we often miss the opportunity for enormous growth, and negate the possibility of healing. The physical body is treated as a “thing” much like a car in a mechanic shop. Our reliance on science and technology often leads patients through a maze of cold, confusing, inefficient, painful, and dehumanizing tests or procedures. Technology reigns over touch. Machines dominate over human contact. We trust our CAT scans and our MRIs more than our own good sense.
Sometimes, after undergoing a dizzying array of tests, patients are left feeling no better, or even worse, than when they came in. Patients often feel neglected, unheard, or mistreated. They are rushed in and out of office visits. Doctors and nurses are so bombarded with tasks that they hardly have a moment to hear a patient’s story, let alone, connect on a human level. At the end of the day we may find that, by exclusively fighting illness in a patient’s body, there is little space for healing.
Our society values contests, battles, and a good fight. Our medical system is steeped in this worldview and therefore we approach most illnesses as things that must be fought. In the hospital, we hear words like:
“He is a fighter.”
“She is not going to give in.”
“She is going to beat this thing.”
“He is not going to let this get the best of him.”
“He is strong. He can come through this.”
We glorify the fight. We admire strength and tenacity in our patients and loved ones. In this way, we often neglect the importance of the need to nurture health. Fighting illness has it’s place, but when it comes to health, fighting illness is only a piece of the puzzle. Just like the masculine and feminine are both needed to create life, we need a balanced approach to healing.
As the bulbs of spring reach through the ground for the sunlight, we must reach for healing. It is a quieter process, more delicate and gentle, but extraordinarily important nonetheless. Healing must be tended to with love and kindness and endless patience. To nurture healing means to allow health to grow and blossom from within.