Monday, October 01, 2012

The Frustrating Field of Human Endeavour

As a doctor, I have realised that people broadly fall into three categories when it comes to illness and disability. The first consists of those who are so severely ill or disabled that they require assistance with all activities of daily living. They are unable to perform even the most minor task. They need and deserve all the assistance that medicine, social services and society as a whole can provide to ease their misfortune.

Then there are those who, regardless of how severe their diagnosis is, shoulder the burden and carry it with aplomb, determined that they will continue to live as actively as they possibly can. They overcome psychological and physical burdens, as well as social prejudices and discrimination, to make their lives fulfilling. They are largely uncomplaining, being appreciative of everything done to lighten their load. They strive to meet everyday challenges, including working for as many hours or days they can manage. They do not expect to be totally kept by the nation on benefits, and instead earn money and pay their tax as well as any able-bodied person. They are a credit to themselves and to humankind.

Finally, there is the opposite group to the aforementioned. They usually have some genuine illness or disability (although some do fabricate their condition), but they magnify their symptoms and wear their suffering like a badge for all to see. Regardless of how capable they remain, they consider themselves to be totally incapable of work for even a reduced number of hours per week.  These are people who are quick to blame others, including the medical profession, for their misfortune in life. They also believe that society owes them something and that it is their right to live on state benefits. The fact that they still have a functioning brain, or the use of their arms, or can sit even if they cannot stand for long (and so on) is immaterial to how they see themselves and their ability. In their eyes they are totally disabled and incapable of contributing to their own care or to society as a whole.

It is this third group that I admit to professionally finding the most frustrating. With such people, there is a part of me that wants to confiscate their unnecessary walking stick or crutches, shake them by the shoulders and tell them to get a life. As a reader, you will know someone like that. You may even recognise yourself as one of this group.  To such people let me say that I know you are often in pain, or have difficulty with your heart, lungs, bowel, bladder, or a limb or two, and that life is not always easy; but it is not impossible. Life is also precious; a once-only gift and you are wasting yours.

Dr Ludwig Guttmann shared the same professional exasperation when he was put in charge of a spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1943. Refusing to allow his colleagues or his patients to see people with disability as totally incapable, he strove to make patients focus on what they could do rather than what they could not. As a result, the Paralympics was born. This week we will watch with awe, pride and fascination as men and women show how they have overcome enormous difficulties and suffering to excel and make something of their lives. As you watch, ask yourself one question. If they can do it, what is stopping you from achieving more than you currently imagine you are capable of doing? 

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 30th August 2012)

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