When I was growing up, our family would visit my father’s many relatives in Southern California. Regrettably, the conversations during these visits often centered on illness, symptoms, and fears of disease. My mother was a student of Christian Science and we never talked about disease at home in this way. We didn’t ignore health problems, we just rarely had any problems to talk about.
By contrast, my father’s family seemed to enjoy talking about disease even more than the Dodgers. I remember one aunt in particular who would often question my health the moment I walked in the door! Admittedly, I was a skinny little kid for my age, but healthy nonetheless. Surrounded by these discussions, I would sometimes leave feeling nauseous!
Many years later, my brother and I were sailing for a week in the Canadian Gulf Islands. When we arrived back at Friday Harbor, we learned that our father was seriously ill and our mother urged us to come as soon as possible.
When we arrived, my father lay unconscious in a Seattle hospital bed with our mother and other family members by his side. An attending physician asked to speak with me and urged me to prepare my family for the inevitable. He was certain that my father’s death was imminent. I appreciated the physician’s motive in sharing this advice and the care he was providing, but I just could not give up on my Dad. I didn’t tell my family about the dire prognosis and instead remained hopeful and expectant of a full recovery. Not long after, he improved and was taken home where he regained his health and lived for 14 more years.
The experience reminds me of an opposite outcome during the Civil War in 1863. One of the Confederacy’s most effective generals, Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, was accidentally shot by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Days after the accident and having his left arm amputated, the young general was reported to have been cheerful and impatient to return to command. Despite his resilience and expectancy of a full recovery, his doctors disagreed and were convinced his condition was fatal. Even signs of improving health did not change their prognosis.
Finally, after eight days, he accepted their arguments, made final arrangements with his wife, fell into a state of delirium, and died.
History attributes his death to pneumonia, but no one really knows. In 1975, practicing physician Beverly C. Smith, M.D. became interested in analyzing the medical care given to Jackson. She authored an article in the Summer 1975 issue of the VMI Alumni Review that states that the cause of General Jackson’s death remains a medical mystery. Dr. Smith further notes, “This is a fascinating medical problem. There was no autopsy and the true answers will never be known.”
The bedside manner provided to General Jackson fits with what Dr. Larry Dossey describes as “Era 1” medicine, developed during the time of the Civil War. Era 1 medicine can be termed “mechanical medicine” and it views health as totally physical in nature.
In the mid-1900s, a new phase of medicine called “Era 2” saw physicians beginning to recognize that thoughts and feelings can influence the body’s functions—a radical step from the Era 1 approach.
Dr. Dossey views the still-developing “Era 3” view of medicine as the most interesting. The Era 3 phase will extend far beyond Era 2 by recognizing how thought and consciousness are central to the nature of health.
Further proof of this growing trend towards “Era 3” medicine can be found in an article titled, “The health alerts that make you ill: Negative thoughts ‘can induce sickness.’” The article states, “Dr Clifton Meador, of Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville in the U.S, said fear can turn into self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘Bad news promotes bad physiology. I think that you can persuade people that they’re going to die and have it happen. I don’t think there is anything mystical about it. We’re uncomfortable with the idea that words or symbolic actions can cause death because it changes our biomolecular model of the world.’”
The understanding of the mental atmosphere surrounding a patient can also be traced back to the works of Jesus Christ. For instance, in the Biblical book of Mark, chapter five, when Jesus was called to heal the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, he put everyone out of the room except the parents and his three disciples before he healed her. Could it be that he knew that the frightened thought of others was not conducive to a healing atmosphere? Perhaps this is why one can find the words, “Be not afraid,” throughout the Bible.
Fortunately, many in healthcare today are leaning away from “Era 1” thinking and towards the recognition that thought and consciousness are central to ensuring effective healthcare.