Living in the Body Part 2

Living in the Body Part 2

Ignaz Semmelweis washing his hands in chlorinated lime water before operating.

Language can and often has been a barrier to taking charge of one’s health. The internet and the ability to harvest information has greatly helped. But in previous times, when there was no easy access to information, this was certainly not the case.


Consider changes in a person’s mental health or the adult with language difficulty or language barriers. For many years and in many countries, if you didn’t meet certain standards in your actions and verbal ability, you were often labeled insane and housed in an institution where you were considered less than human. Though within you were the basic needs to be loved and cared for, you were mistreated, abused, even raped. Many stories surrounding mental hospitals have been unearthed, books written, films made. Many reveal true horror stories.


Below is a copy of the classification system that labeled a person’s mental ability using cruel terms–actually used by doctors, nurses and other health officials. 

Idiots. —Those so defective that the mental development never exceeds that or a normal child of about two years.
Imbeciles. —Those whose development is higher than that of an idiot, but whose intelligence does not exceed that of a normal child of about seven years.
Morons. —Those whose mental development is above that of an imbecile, but does not exceed that of a normal child of about twelve years.
— Edmund Burke Huey, Backward and Feeble-Minded Children, 1912


But through research, eventual open-mindedness and time, medical professionals and society at large, came to understand that poor nutrition and housing, exposure to sick environments, the lack of love and good parenting contributed to mental ability. Research and steady, thorough evaluation of clients led to the defining of conditions like bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. We now know that people with these conditions often function differently than the norm, but still can love and live good lives that benefit from the medications created to help them do so. Our humanity demands this. All people deserve love, respect and human contact.


But for centuries, physical disabilities usually meant you did not receive everything you needed. Your full personhood was disregarded and you were often labeled: gimp, cripple, and yes, moron. But damn, you were not less of a person. Yet it took years, even in the supposedly forward thinking USA, for people with disabilities to be understood and to be heard. Now finally we have been enlightened. We understand that a person who is physically challenged is, of course, a full person–that he or she can work and travel and take care of a family–with the help of changes that accommodate them, encourage them to prosper and provide for their special needs.


But in those older, uneducated days, labels were heartless and they were everywhere. Consider how medical people and medical institutions in England labeled their centers of care: Crippled Children’s Hospital; Chronically Ill Hospital; Insane Asylum. Your diagnosis as you were wheeled in was printed in stone on the front of the building. You were sentenced. The very names shouted out that the hospital lacked knowledge, lacked understanding. They failed to understand that these patients were human, and that being human demands our physical bodies, our minds and even our goals and loves should be treated with respect–within that setting.

And though some complain about it, today’s hospital stays are shortened to allow the person to go back to family and society, to live as normal a life as possible despite the condition he or she has.

(My eye surgery that I have written about, was done when I was five. It required that I stay in the hospital for a week! Away from my mother. The surgery also required that BOTH of my eyes were covered with gauze during that time. Someone fed me, put me on the bedpan. My mother could visit for one hour per day and there was a day when she was unable to come. Bad memories for me.)

Today, that procedure and most others are done in an outpatient setting, requiring maybe four to five hours of recovery, and possibly periodic visits to a medical office post surgery. We have come a long way, working to get patients discharged to home and back into society, helping them live as normal a life as possible with whatever illness or condition they have. 


And this is so important: a person is absolutely not the gallbladder in 305 or the rheumatoid arthritis in 312. We are all people, humans who sometimes become ill and ask our medical community to help us, to encourage us so that we can work our way back to full health–or to the best that we can be.

But how many of us realize that our human body is a gift and that we only get one? When do we really start living in the body that we have been given?

Currently, with Covid19, many of us are more aware than ever. We wash our hands, drink fluids and we swallow a lot to see if we have a sore throat! At least I do. But again, there are folks who don’t stop smoking until they are in their 90’s with Congestive Heart Failure. Or there is the teen with genital warts (HPV) who is told she now has Pelvic Inflammatory disease (PID), but she is certain the nurse is lying to her. And so she denies it for months, infecting others–the point being, that until she accepts the diagnosis and begins to live each day making it a part or her and seeking treatment, she will not be truly LIVING in her body.


We benefit from modern science as to our mental and physical health. But the connection of mind and body was not always recognized. In the Judeo-Christian history, there was a strong pull to the heavens, away from the earth where living was hard. Cathedrals were built, but the human body was basically ignored.

Medicine was savagely ignorant. The care of the body suffered in these dark ages. Consider the Black Death. Or a farming accident where the cure was to cut off a limb. Many lived their later years with no teeth, and easily became blinded because of injuries. Sores became septic and you died. Women in difficult childbirth could bleed to death or become septic, because the presence of bacteria was not known, doctors with dirty hands being all over intimate parts of the female body when assisting in childbirth–until Ignaz Semmelweis.

Often described as the “saviour of mothers”, Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”) could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal. Semmelweis introduced the concept of washing of one’s hands in chlorinated lime water before operating. HARD TO BELIEVE, RIGHT? But bacteria were invisible. The world worked by what was evident. 


But truly, the body was thought to be secondary. Many suffered, hoping that their pain would be a path to the afterlife.

Today, people in medicine are constantly researching. Their goal is to improve life, cure disease, enable people who are handicapped from birth or from accidents to function as normally as possible. It has always been about living in the body, caring for that body. But today–in so many ways–that task is enlightened and aided by research and knowledge. Thus we strive to care for our bodies, to maintain them–and our minds–to appreciate the life we have been given. FINAL THOUGHT; WEAR A MASK! 

Suggested Reading: 

Unclean Hands; Andrew Schafer MD; 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Rebecca Skloot;

Being Mortal;  Atul Gawande 


8 thoughts on “Living in the Body Part 2

  1. Modern medicine is miraculous, especially when comparing it to what came before, in this very informative BOOMER HIGHWAY. My doctor did many of his “office visits” during the pandemic via the internet (ZOOM, FACETIME, etc.). He wasn’t necessarily protecting himself and his staff, but those of us who would require visiting the office. When it came to a hands on physical we were ushered into an examination room, in an office where only one or two patients were present in the waiting room.
    As we move forward in these very difficult times, all safety measures are comforting. When I asked my doctor how many coronavirus patients he has treated he said,”Thankfully only three, but all of our emails regarding warnings, how to avoid it, and what to do, really seemed to help.” And the three patients who did contract the pandemic survived, without lengthy hospital stays….
    In these confusing times, please wear a mask, and respect those around you, as we all have to navigate past this pandemic…..Together.

    • Great news that we are learning during this pandemic to take care of our bodies and our health. Love you, Beth

  2. I am so grateful to the health care workers who saved the life of my autistic brother in law, who had COVID-19 in April, and all those who worked with him in the following months – it took him months to regain full lung function and only now it is approaching 100%. At the time he was born, he could have easily ended up in an institution like Willowbrook – or worse. I shudder to think of that.

  3. I weep for those who went before. For the care they didn’t receive. What a testament they are to the sheer perseverance of the human spirit! If those forebears hadn’t carried on through these truly horrific dark times, NONE of us would be here today!
    I am so grateful for today’s health care. For the research and the discoveries that are the foundation of today’s medical ‘miracles’. Grateful, too for those pioneers who made these discoveries.
    And most grateful for the understanding we have of the human body and the intricate balance of systems and processes that it is!
    Thank you for this article, Beth! I definitely need these reminders of just how blessed I am!

  4. Thank you. This is my world! I am a disAbility advocate and have a daughter with autism. Am all too aware of the history. Thanks for sharing it with others, Elizabeth!

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