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 




Artistic Anatomy

If you raise a totally healthy boy and a girl, help them through their fevers and colds, provide them with healthcare if they get strep throat or a severe flu, I believe they will not relate to their bodies in the same way when they are seventeen.

The female will be more in tune with hers than the male. Why, you may ask. Well, early on she learns about menstruation. Well yes, you respond, but males have things happening to them too! Yes, that’s true.  But the girl is better prepared to live in her body. Why, you ask again. Because she becomes familiar with blood.


From our first breath, we live inside our bodies. As babies we lie in wonder of air and light, the beginnings of sight and sound, as we gradually determine that our mothers are not part of us–but that our hand is. And that we have these two appendages we learn are our legs with other appendages we learn are our feet. My daughter Christine was toeing in at six months and had to wear special shoes to prevent a future problem. Did she fuss? No. At that time, it was all part of the progression of living.

As babies, we learn that sucking with the mouth nourishes us, that crying brings comfort and warm touches.

We have no language to define any of this, but we have instinct and that drives our need for food, comfort, warmth and dryness. If these needs are not met, we know how to kick and scream. After all, we came into this world kicking and screaming, and if fortunate, we were immediately given warmth, comfort and eventually food.


The developing infant is not aware of the need to urinate and defecate. It is only through growth, the awareness of being wet and uncomfortable, that increases awareness of the body and helps our parents teach us good toilet habits.

Hunger and thirst determine how we experience the hours of the day. We cry for the breast or the bottle. We wake up when we are hungry, and as we grow, we might even climb on a rickety stool to get to the cookie jar.

Hunger is that first human drive that establishes some sense of time in our lives, but then begins the long process of establishing balance and moderation. Even children can over-eat, leading to weight-gain, poor coordination and poor self-image. (But note, the inability to eat wisely can be a problem throughout life, one that hinders health and can lead to health problems and even early death.)


Another capability of humans is adaptation. If we lose a leg or an arm, over time we learn to adapt to that loss. We might have a prosthetic device to aid us, but the very fact of losing part of one’s anatomy demands a great deal of physical and psychic energy to grasp at life, to go on. But surely, humans are survivors.

A deaf child compensates by placing hands on the throat of a speaking person to feel the vibrations. Blind children use their hands to explore the world and turn their heads to pick up the sounds that alert them to the world around them. But compensation is not a good idea in an adult who truly is having difficulty seeing or hearing but refuses to wear glasses or hearing aids.

A chronically ill child will not accept a parent saying that he or she is “just fine.” Deep within the psyche, the child will put things together, and often better accept this change in his or her life than the parents. Honesty is the best way to go. 


What I do question, and would love your thoughts concerning this—is that as we age, why does our ability to accept death and dying become even harder for us? It is the long span of health, independence, and our functioning that disallows us to acknowledge that we are mortal and that we will die? As Wordsworth wrote in his poem, Intimation of Immortality, maybe children do arrive in this world:

But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Or is it because children do not have as firm a stake in the world as adults have. Throughout life, all of us must compensate and adapt. Sometimes it is only for a short while.

I wore bandages on both eyes for a week after eye surgery. I was only five.  A friend developed MS, Multiple Sclerosis. Her ability to compensate and adapt now colors her entire life. If we lose an arm, we are still the same person. That hasn’t changed us.

Nor have the scars of a traffic accident or a fire–we are integrally the same person, now needing to sorrow over our loss, go through the struggle to adjustment, form that altered person we now present to the world, though inside we have not truly changed. And it is horrible and wrong when someone might label us, the speaker doing so to distance himself from what could also happen to him–a human and deep-seated fear.


Maybe we instinctively know that our bodies are fragile. From the beginning, we crave distance from the pain and suffering of others. But as a child, I did not realize I could give pain to someone else when I wanted to look away from their suffering.

Maybe I found my way into nursing to better understand that reaction, to acknowledge, to be more open. I believe that each of us, no matter the shape of our body, the losses or problems we might live with, deserves the acknowledgement of a whole human being. Thus I have learned not to run and open doors for the handicapped, unless explicitly asked to do so. Once I approached a blind man, telling him that the usual entrance to the mall was blocked by decorations. He whirled on me, told me he knew exactly where he was going. I had invaded his space. In that particular situation, I was wrong.

Do we take for granted our bodies and how to care for them?  

Thanks to Artistic Anatomy for the lovely art.