Beloved readers, I’ve been silent for some time, and I feel I owe you an explanation. Last Monday I suffered, in ways I won’t trouble you by describing, and our wonderful friend and the gifted healer Dr Henry Ealy advised me to check in to the local ER.
I was found to have a ruptured appendix, and in the morning I sustained an appendectomy. An acute infection was involved somewhere along the way, for which I am still in the hospital, being treated.
That may be TMI already, but I tell you everything that I think is germane – as any nonfiction writer should do, I believe, or at least those in my genre of transparency.
I have some ideas about how to share earlier unpublished work with you that I think you will enjoy, while I heal, so you are still hearing from me.
Meanwhile, some thoughts:
It is truly a 19th century kind of recovery…while everyone in this hospital has been absolutely delightful to me and the nurses could not be kinder, my surgeon is wonderful, and the level of care is incredibly attentive, I am having a profound experience of how modern hospitals, even the very best of them, over time, simply by the nature of their inexorable systems, are like a vortex that makes it hard for a longtime patient in acute care not to be tempted to simply give up and die.
Infections – which I am battling – were a major part of the fight against disease in pre-antibiotic England and America in the 19th century. I am absurdly grateful for the antibiotics with which my system is continually being flushed here via IV, of course. But other aspects of how older medical practices helped to support patients’ immune systems in fighting recovery have been lost to time, unavailable now not just to this but to all or to most modern hospitals, and, being that I am a patient still in acute distress, I miss them.
As my immune system fights on, now for a week, I keep fantasizing having access to aspects of 19th century healing that are no longer available to anyone.
Did you know, for instance, that hospitals – which were (since the Middle Ages) originally in the West founded by the Church, and often by branches of nunneries — always had a ‘hospital garden,’ integrated right into the architecture, whether in courtyards or as the exterior grounds?
This did not just provide herbs for medicaments. It also allowed recovering patients to sit in the healing sun, and to walk at their own paces in an ever-varying landscape. Perhaps even to greet one another. Given the life-saving role of Vitamin D, and of fresh air, as pre-modern healers as late as Florence Nightingale argued, this feature of almost all hospitals (and sanitaria, and mental institutions) before the 20th century, had measurable value that cannot be overstated, not just, as Nightingale put it, for the mind, but also for the body.
Think of how a sick dog or cat lies in the sun.
I long to sit or walk in the sun with the longing of an animal. But hospital policy – not just here but probably everywhere – forbids that. There is a beautiful exterior deck with views of green hills. I long for it like the Promised Land. It was locked six years ago. I know that hospitals have real concerns about patients stepping outside, even onto a balcony – liability, escape, suicidality – but knowing what I know now from my friend Dr Simon Goddek and my interviewee Dr Vatsal Thakkar about the role in healing of Vitamin D, not to mention the positive effect on immunities of socialization versus isolation, I hope hospitals can find a safe way to again give patients access to walk in ‘healing gardens.’ Sanatoria used to have airing balconies where patients took sun and chatted, and even slept while wrapped in fur sleeping bags (see The Magic Mountain) because fresh air could support their healing.
I’ll never forget the owner of a small chain of elder care homes in Nevada, who tweeted to me early in the pandemic that, at a time when age home inmates were entirely isolated, and dying in droves, they in their facilities had experimented with bringing their elderly patients out into the area outside for an hour a day for sun and socialization. He told me proudly that the elders all looked forward to it – that it was the high point of their days now – and that he had lost not one elder in his care to COVID.
Our immune systems need sun and air. They even need contact with the earth – the mycelium in the earth are healing. Our immunities are boosted by socialization.
Part of my task every day, indeed every hour, is to circle the hallways twice. Moving is important. I do this, in my doubled gown (one over the back for modesty), like a zombie. Seeing people even more ill than I am – as many doors are open – makes this a very sad and painful journey. The nurses are all cheery, but the suffering of all around me is debilitating to witness, hour upon hour, day after day. Stress lowers immunities. One gets detached from one’s former life, isolated, institutionalized.
All the kind texts pouring in feel lovely but hypothetical as, except for visits from loved ones and nurses, I’ve been cut off from anything but my room and these hallways for a week now. Does the outside world really exist? Is it worth fighting for? A garden…a library…a balcony…anything to remind us that there can be life again for us some day, would help our immunities as well as our sense of connectedness, without which it is almost impossible to sustain life.
The 19th century treatment for patients trying to recover from infections and fevers included uninterrupted sleep, as well easy-to-digest but highly nutritious foods. I know that I must be awakened four times a night and I am sure there are good reasons – ie measuring my vital signs – but I also think of that classic Victorian literary scene in which the patient has slept deeply, a ‘crisis’ has arrived — I was never sure what that meant, but it seemed as if the fever reached an organic high point — then the fever had broken and was gone. Everyone rejoiced.
I don’t mean to second guess the importance of checking vitals throughout the night, especially in an acute case such as mine. At the same time, I’d like to understand better why the Victorians so valued the deep sleep of invalids, and why a hospital now is a place where a patient cannot sleep through the night.
This is a major change in the culture of healing. Has enough research been done so that we are sure that ‘checking the patients’ vitals’ is a benefit that outweighs ‘giving the patient a full night’s sleep?’ I have no idea, but knowing that zero profit can be generated by finding out if it’s better to ‘just let that patient sleep,’ I feel less confident in this than I’d like to.
Invalids also need nutritious food. Victorian invalids (the ones who could afford good medical care) were sustained by such delicacies as cows’ foot jelly, aspics, tisanes, sago and tapiocas. These were gentle on invalids’ digestive systems but delivered protein and energy.
No disrespect to my lovely nutritionist here, and I do know that industrial kitchens have their own challenges. The food is much better here than in many hospitals. But I am struggling to recover even while ingesting many more preservatives, stabilizers, artificial colors and sugars than I usually eat. And while I gaze helplessly at the giant hunks of beef and chicken on my plate, while experiencing always the ripped-up nature of my insides, this does send me sadly back into those fantasies of the Victorian bedroom with the invalid’s tray with its gentle protein jellies and tapiocas.
My carers are doing a heroic job with modern medicine keeping me alive (to date) and I thank them.
But right now I am fighting to recover, by virtue of my immune system.
I do wonder from this experience if the race toward modern medicine and systematized treatment has closed off many sources of knowledge, some hundreds and thousands of years old, about all the things – organic, aesthetic, emotional, nutritious, sun-derived, earth-derived — that human bodies do require in order to heal – and specifically, that just because we have the miracle of antibiotics, it does not mean that infected bodies can necessarily do well without these many other ancient forms of support.
I don’t want to go back to the 19th century, to be very clear. I don’t want to live in a pre-antibiotic, pre-painkiller world. I know how ugly and painful and brutal that was, from these same histories and novels.
I don’t wish to return to a time when my vitals were impossible to access in the detail we have now.
But I do wonder if in the rush to modern, systematized medicine, we have abandoned unnecessarily some simple forms of knowledge about human recovery that would, by reclaiming them, make even the best modern hospital a less existentially difficult place – a more truly healing one – not only for patients, but for the nursing staff (who work unbelievably long hours) and the physicians’ staff as well.
On another note: I have a lot of people to thank for the to-date solid performance of my immune system, upon which my recovery depends. Never have I understood or appreciated it more.
I am very grateful to my wonderful current surgeon, of course, and to my equally wonderful nurses.
I am grateful to you, my readers, for your love (dare I say it) and patience. I invite your prayers. I can use them.
But having survived – I think – the worst of this battle, I also want to thank my network of brave dissident Drs: Dr McCullough, Dr Alexander, Dr Risch, Dr Goddek, Dr Thakkar, and others, all of whom educated me about the immune system – that Voldemort of the body, the entity supporting it all which Pharma would like us all never to mention, let alone to understand.
Thank you to Dr Henry Ealy, the gifted healer, who diagnosed me from Arizona, who has been ever-present to Brian as needed by phone, who has kept me as safe as possible with supplements and probiotics, and who will oversee my recovery at home.
All of you ‘dissident doctors’ taught me for two years what my immune system was and why it mattered, and the fact that I alone was responsible for its strength by virtue of actions I took every day. You taught me what I had to do to keep it strong, and that it was never wise to hand over that personal responsibility to a pill, a vaccine, or even to a physician.
I think without that instruction and training — without having gone into this with a robust immune system – I may have done much worse in this fight to date. The ones who die in this condition, sadly, are either elderly or suffer from poor immunities.
The fact that I feel every day how my immunities are trying to save me from a nefarious invader — I literally feel the battlefield inside my own body – makes any intervention that damages anyone’s immune system into even more of a crime than I’d already realized that it was.
Words can’t express my gratitude to my husband Brian O’Shea, daughter and son, stepdaughter and stepson, all of whom did so much, from their various locations to help and care for me. Without family, how easy it is to just yield.
Of course, as my Aunt Judith, a Rabbi, would say, in that casual, intimate, slightly Yiddish-inflected way she has — ‘Thanks God.’
Above all I am grateful to my immune system – my best friend in my one life on this planet – a system which has been (and still is) in the fight of its life; and so grateful to all those who taught me to love it as myself; since that is indeed, as it turns out, what it really is.
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