Whenever I think of surgery, my recollections always go to a man with cancer of the larynx. At that time the University of Alberta had the most respected surgeons and cancer specialists in the country. To treat cancer they invariably did surgery, plus radiation and chemotherapy to eradicate all traces of cancerous tissue in the body, but they seemed to forget there also was a human being residing in that very same cancerous body. This particularly unfortunate man came into our hospital as a whole human being, though sick with cancer. He could still speak, eat, swallow, and looked normal. But after surgery he had no larynx, nor esophagus, nor tongue, and no lower jaw.
The head surgeon, who, by the way, was considered to be a virtual god amongst gods, came back from the operating room smiling from ear to ear, announcing proudly that he had ‘got all the cancer'. But when I saw the result I thought he'd done a butcher's job. The victim couldn't speak at all, nor eat except through a tube, and he looked grotesque. Worst, he had lost all will to live. I thought the man would have been much better off to keep his body parts as long as he could, and die a whole person able to speak, eating if he felt like it, being with friends and family without inspiring a gasp of horror. I was sure there must be better ways of dealing with degenerative conditions such as cancer, but I had no idea what they might be or how to find out. There was no literature on medical alternatives in the university library, and no one in the medical school ever hinted at the possibility except when the doctors took jabs at chiropractors. Since no one else viewed the situation as I did I started to think I might be in the wrong profession.
It also bothered me that patients were not respected, were not people; they were considered a "case" or a "condition." I was frequently reprimanded for wasting time talking to patients, trying to get acquainted. The only place in the hospital where human contact was acceptable was the psychiatric ward. So I enjoyed the rotation to psychiatry for that reason, and decided that I would like to make psychiatry or psychology my specialty.
By the time I finished nursing school, it was clear that the hospital was not for me. I especially didn't like its rigid hierarchical system, where all bowed down to the doctors. The very first week in school we were taught that when entering a elevator, make sure that the doctor entered first, then the intern, then the charge nurse. Followed by, in declining order of status: graduate nurses, third year nurses, second year nurses, first year nurses, then nursing aids, then orderlies, then ward clerks, and only then, the cleaning staff. No matter what the doctor said, the nurse was supposed to do it immediately without question--a very military sort of organization.
Nursing school wasn't all bad. I learned how to take care of all kinds of people with every variety of illness. I demonstrated for myself that simple nursing care could support a struggling body through its natural healing process. But the doctor-gods tended to belittle and denigrate nurses. No wonder--so much of nursing care consists of unpleasant chores like bed baths, giving enemas and dealing with other bodily functions.
I also studied the state-of-the-art science concerning every conceivable medical condition, its symptoms, and treatment. At the university hospital nurses were required to take the same pre-med courses as the doctors--including anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and pharmacology. Consequently, I think it is essential for holistic healers to first ground themselves in the basic sciences of the body's physiological systems. There is also much valuable data in standard medical texts about the digestion, assimilation, and elimination. To really understand illness, the alternative practitioner must be fully aware of the proper functioning of the cardiovascular/pulmonary system, the autonomic and voluntary nervous system, the endocrine system, plus the mechanics and detailed nomenclature of the skeleton, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Also it is helpful to know the conventional medical models for treating various disorders, because they do appear to work well for some people, and should not be totally invalidated simply on the basis of one's philosophical or religious viewpoints.
Many otherwise well-meaning holistic practitioners, lacking an honest grounding in science, sometimes express their understanding of the human body in non-scientific, metaphysical terms that can seem absurd to the well-instructed. I am not denying here that there is a spiritual aspect to health and illness; I believe there are energy flows in and around the body that can effect physiological functioning. I am only suggesting that to discuss illness without hard science is like calling oneself a abstract artist because the painter has no ability to even do a simple, accurate representational drawing of a human figure.
Though hospital life had already become distasteful to me I was young and poor when I graduated. So after nursing school I buckled down and worked just long enough to save enough money to obtain a masters degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of British Columbia. Then I started working at Riverview Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., doing diagnostic testing, and group therapy, mostly with psychotic people. At Riverview I had a three-year-long opportunity to observe the results of conventional psychiatric treatment.
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