After my amputation, I discovered that with so many doctor appointments and therapies I was starting to feel as if being a patient was my whole life. Because I saw myself as a “sick man” I started surfing the internet endlessly to probe potential causes for whatever agitation I was feeling at a given moment and calling the family doctor to demand medicine for the tiniest discomfort.
After a while I realized that one problem with this way of thinking and living is that it generates a self-fulfilling prophecy; I felt like a permanent patient because that’s what in fact I’d become. But far more important I realized that I’d wrongly arranged my life’s priorities.We all want to be healthy but the thing that gives health value is the “why” that it serves. Reclaiming the driving dreams and desires that makes good health important to us may do more in the long term to help us feel well than all the medicines ever invented. At a given moment we may not be able to do everything we want in fulfilling our dreams but if we persist in doing what we can we likely are going to start feeling better because we aren’t letting health define us.
I worked as a hospice chaplain for five years. Most people think of hospice as a service for the dying but they are wrong; it’s actually just a different way of practicing medicine. While current mainstream medicine concentrates its formidable arsenal of skills and technology on the goal of preventing death, hospice uses many of those same tools plus a wide range of its own to enhance the quality of life. The biggest difference is that while the mainstream model always fails in the end because death is intrinsic to physical life, the hospice model with its focus on improving quality of life need never fail since it is always possible to do something that will give joy and blessing to someone else.
I often wonder how the world would be different if medical practitioners gave up their futile wrestling match with the grim reaper and embraced the goal of palliative care for everyone, that is, care that aims to improve quality of life. This wouldn’t mean that current technologies would need to be abandoned (procedures like chemotherapy and surgery have always been part of hospice treatment) but the attitude would be different for doctor and patient. Treatment that is often perceived as a desperate act would instead be seen as a life-enriching gift and approaches to medical care could be expanded. Hospice care can, for example, include taking an avid outdoorsman on a fishing trip or helping a lifelong artist start painting again.
The greatest beneficiary of this new objective and attitude might be our culture as a whole. Today professional medicine is rightly seen by many as a place to run in the face of trouble. In this new model, it would become one of many disciplines and practices that taken together holistically ensure a high quality of life. This could, in turn, lead to a new style of day to day living that seeks more than mere survival but strives instead to maximize physical, spiritual and mental wellness in individuals and among an entire community.