During this past week I was left contemplating the meaning of the word ‘healing’ after a patient thanked me for ‘healing her’. Fortunately, the expression of a few words of gratitude is not an uncommon phenomenon amongst patients who feel that they have been helped. However, on this occasion it was the choice of the word ‘healing’ that left me pondering. It is not a word that is used that often by either doctors or patients. Doctors speak of broken bones healing, or a wound healing; both in terms of two sides of a break or cut joining together. Nonetheless, it is rare that the word is used in a more generalised context. Instead, we tend to prefer the words ‘curing’ or ‘treating’. The choice of the word ‘healing’ by my patient sounded strange and somewhat antiquated.
As is always the case when I am puzzling over words, my instinct is to reach for a dictionary so as to acquire a baseline for my thoughts. The Oxford English Dictionary thus informed me that the word ‘heal’ means ‘make or become sound or healthy again’. The dictionary did not expand on the word ‘healer’, other than to label it a noun; thus leaving me in the rather unsatisfactory situation of understanding that a healer is someone who makes something sound or healthy again. The problem with words is that the deeper you dig into them, the more complex the question becomes.
For example, if the two ends of a broken bone knit together, we would class that as healing. However, if the limb containing that bone is left misshapened and the patient has a resulting limp, can they truly be said to be ‘healed’, ‘sound’ or ‘healthy’? Furthermore, what does being ‘healthy’ mean? Can an eighty year old with nothing more than mild arthritis, consider himself as ‘healthy’?
I believe that the answer to the last question is ‘yes’; just as I have come to the conclusion that being ‘healed’ means far more than being rid of one’s disease. Indeed, I have started to consider the possibility that a person can be healed despite the continuing existence of what most people would consider as ill-health.
Faith-healers have probably thought this all along. Often considered as charlatans or quacks, faith-healers use their skills to make people feel better. The operative word here is ‘feel’. The eighty year old with an arthritic knee feels healthy because he has come to terms with the reality of living with a worn joint; he has come to consider that his disease is a normal part of him and thus, in his mind, he is healthy. Each year millions of people flock to Lourdes for precisely the same aim. Very few people leave Lourdes without their disease; indeed the Roman Catholic Church has only officially recognised six such miracles. Nonetheless, many more people return home feeling better for their experience.
Perhaps healing is something we, as doctors and nurses, should be attempting more often in medicine, rather than trying to cure or just treat. We can only cure patients some of the time; but we can probably heal people on many more occasions.
First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph 14 March 2013
© Copyright Robert M Jaggs-Fowler 2013