Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Who is Healthy?

A doctor, writing in the  Catholic Digest, asks "Who is the healthy person?" The dictionary meaning of health, often cited and generally thought to be accurate, is to be free of mental and physical ailments, and to have a robust constitution. According to this definition, the doctor says he would have to exclude many friends, acquaintances, and patients he considers healthy. He gives examples of what he means. 

A friend of his, another doctor, who has a crippled leg from polio, doesn't hesitate whenever his patients need his help, often being the first one to be at their bedside. At home, though often tired from long hours at work, he plays hide-and-seek with his daughter--not an easy game for someone with a crippled leg. And when his son, like all inquisitive children, asks a difficult question, he always takes the time to respond thoughtfully and appropriately. Can we say, he asks, that his friend does not have good health.

A man in his fifties, having recently climbed one of the highest peaks in Korea, was told a few days later that he had stomach cancer. Are we to think that from the moment he had the diagnosis he no longer was healthy? That he somehow lost the health that enabled him to climb that mountain? Or for that matter, should anything in the natural world that once was young and vigorous be described as having lost health as it ages?

A  78-year old diabetic grandmother,  overly preoccupied with health, leaving the doctor's office asked: Doctor are you  in good health? She just completed a physical exam, and yet she wants another MRI, just to make sure she's healthy. Can we say she is in good health?

We don't normally consider anything old as being healthy. But even in the natural world, taking as an example an old persimmon tree. Yes, it was once vigorous and producing fine fruit but now is producing small, ugly fruit, eaten only by birds. Who would consider the tree as not being healthy? Some of course would, but not our doctor.

He clearly has difficulty with the generally accepted meaning of health that restricts the word to a period of life where physical growth and fruitfulness are most evident, and that describes the period of life where physical powers decline as a lack of health. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of health. he says, will lead to many contradictions. 

Instead of  saying that health is the absence of any physical and mental problems, the doctor would prefer to say a person who lives his daily life without insecurity, and  enjoys physical, mental and spiritual peace is the healthy person. This more holistic understanding of health  includes even those who take medicines to control their high blood pressure, those who have been operated on for cancer and are living a normal life, those who are taking medicines to control depression and yet are able to work helping others, those who are handicapped and are out there teaching others--all of them could be considered healthy, the doctor insists, despite their physical problems.

A grandfather, after x-rays revealed the possibility of TB, was told to undergo more tests to be sure. The doctor did not  want him to take strong drugs that may not be necessary  and may prove harmful, but the grandfather wanted to start taking the drugs, not for his own health but not to  endanger the health of his grandchildren. He had lived a  full life and the health of his grandchildren was now his primary concern. Can we say the grandfather was not in good health?

He gives us another example. A 45-year old man who was diabetic and obese, not wanting others to think he was unhealthy, refused medicine but decided to exercise 4 hours a day, eating only the best food. During the weekends, he would go golfing and mountain climbing. He also cut down on his weekly workload and avoided foods he previously wanted to eat. The family did not enter into the picture and were very much upset by his decision. Let us suppose, the doctor says, that everything turned out normal after his efforts, can we say he was in good  health?

The doctor suggests that a first step in correcting this misunderstanding of true health might start with changing how we greet one another, which would also help rid us of what he calls the "health neurosis" of our society.  Better than wishing other people good health, which is normally understood to mean physical health, he wants us to get into the habit of wishing them "Joy of life," "Be filled with God's graces," "Be happy," 'May your wishes come true"--all stressing the importance of mental and spiritual health. It is our narrow preoccupation with physical health, he says, that deflects many of us from pursuing the health that counts, The real health that makes any physical ailment of little significance.

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