Thursday, June 30, 2011

For my Dad, who died a few months after being cured.

Last night while watching the news I saw the ad linked here, and though it did evoke the wet-eyed smile it was intended to evoke, it also, on another level, made my blood boil. And I say that knowing that this very post will leave more than a few readers with boiling blood...because of me. I've attacked these types of ads beforenotably in the case of the late Lynn Redgrave's "I'm not going to die of cancer" campaignand I took flak for it. No doubt some will denounce me now for being callous and mean-spirited. Sorry, folks. Simple-mindedness is simple-mindedness ... yes, even when it involves adorable kids who are dying. Perhaps especially when it involves adorable kids who are dying. Disingenuous simple-mindedness is even worse.

Nurses don't "heal" by administering large doses of hope and/or good will. (A case can be made
and would've been made, had I found a buyer for the stillborn book I've been serializing on this blogthat doctors don't do much healing, either.) That kind of "healing" is the touchy-feely variety of which Barbara Ehrenreich wrote so disdainfully in her Harper's piece, "Pathologies of Hope," and which she later skewered in long form in her book, Bright-Sided. In my view, such ads send out a very bad message, one that in almost any other consumer setting would be construed as fraud.

By now, if you're still reading, you're probably thinking, Come on, Salerno. Don't you have bigger fish to fry?

No. And I'll give you two good reasons why.

First of all, we've reached a point in this culture where good intentions are taken for good acts. We see this routinely in politics. All a pol has to do these days is get in front of an audience and sermonize on how bad he or she feels about a certain injustice, and how committed he or she is to a solution, and that's enough. Lip service = service. This is what I find so maddening about the U.S. Congress, where daily the people you and I sent to Washington stand up and deliver impassioned speeches to absolutely no one: Their colleagues are back in their Congressional offices, arranging bribes or their next tryst with that nubile honey back in the district. Lately I find that the winking cynicism of it all, the grand theatrical charade
the substitution of promise for planis almost too much to bear.

But in terms of the issues that spawned this blog, there's a larger point. That's how they attack us: via t
he misappropriation of (once) commonly understood terms and concepts, such that a word like healing is said (and heard) more in its spiritual, New Age sense than in its literal/medical sense. The result is a warm, nonspecific glow that accrues to speaker as well as listener (and also, not coincidentally, attaches to any products the speaker may be selling. In the case of Johnson & Johnson, creator of the subject ad campaign, those products are legion). The notion that a heartfelt promise is a plan, that our positive vibes and good intentions alone will somehow attract a solution from the beneficent Universe ... that is the vulnerability, the "in." Or, to put it in hacking terms, it's the unprotected port through which they gain entry with their viral, sensibility-rotting message.

Behold what Secret-style thinking has done to us.

Exhibiting playful compassion while giving drugs to a dying child is not the same as healing that child.
(Thus the allusion in the title I chose for this post: I am somewhat reminded of how my own father died of cancer after having been "cured" of it. He lasted the established benchmark of five years and a few months.) We don't need compassionate, caring nurses as much as we need effective medicine. Children who die with smiles on their faces still die. They have not, in fact, been healed. Not by this nurse or anyone.


RevRon's Rants said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

We most certainly do need compassionate caring nurses to tend to the dying.

Unfortunately there is no effective medecine to counter death--so when death is inevitable, as it is to all of us sooner or later and no amount of modern medecine is effective against death, those compassionate, caring nurses can make a real difference to the comfort or not of dying person's experience.

How about you ask a few dying people whether they want a kind human presence with them before dismissing the hard-working, seldom-thanked and poorly paid workers who give this great service just to prove an ill-thought out point?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, you see, this is the problem in a nutshell. No one is "dismissing" the efforts of nurses. What am I trying to do is take a stand on behalf of the intended meaning of language (and the concepts language expresses), and bemoan the erosion of clear thinking that has infected this society in recent years due to all this spiritually inflected horseshit.

A person who is "healed" does not die. If you die, you were not "healed." So, make an ad that says, "We have the most compassionate nurses," or, "At Dave's Hospital, we never forget that there's a human being in every bed." Or some such. But DON'T buy into this soft-side crap that equates intention with completion, desire with attainment, sincerity with efficacy. They are very different things. And American culture is being steadily undermined by the loss of reverence for those key distinctions.

RevRon's Rants said...

I have to admit that despite my belief that our mindset can affect our physical health, I have to mute the television in disgust every time a Cancer Treatment Center of America (CTCA) commercial airs. Their not-too-subtle implication is that the "hope" they provide is unique to their operation. If they are describing unrealistic pseudo-hope, they might be correct.

The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in the Houston Medical Center has consistently been ranked #1 in their field, not by PR firms, but by other practitioners and administrators, yet CTCA frequently asserts having success with patients that had supposedly been written off "in Texas." In short, they claim that their woo is more effective than the most exhaustively researched medical treatment regimen, and that the folks "in Texas" just don't care. Having lost my father to cancer many years ago, and having dear friends who are currently being treated, I reject the notion that one has to go to Tulsa to find caring practitioners.

The bottom line, though, is that despite what any clinic advertises - and especially despite what hucksters like Kevin Trudeau claim - there is no "cure" for cancer, partly because it is no single disease, but rather a broad spectrum of diseases that share some common physiological phenomena. What slows or stops the progress of one form might have little or no effect upon another. Anyone who lumps them all together and promises a "cure" is either ignorant of the processes or outright lying. Pretty much eliminates them as potential caregivers in my book.

The only "cure" for cancer is identical to the "cure" for all other maladies: physical death. If we'd ever come to grips with the fact that death is an integral part of life, and that nobody gets out alive, we could focus upon actually improving our quality of life, rather than deluding ourselves and allaying our fears by hiding under the covers of false hope. Who knows... we might even be spared having to hear Peggy tell us how her heart was broken by those meanies in Texas. :-)

Anonymous said...

I notice that you have added two sentences to the end of your article since I wrote my comment.

Prior to that your article read as if effective medicine could have prevented your father's death-an emotionally biased entreaty.

Everybody's father dies at some point of another--a callous remark maybe but nevertheless true--its just an unpalatable but unavoidable fact of life. Using the hoped for sympathy for your loss to push your agenda is underhand and tacky, no matter how beneficial you think your personal agenda is.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 4:16, not sure where you got the idea that I "added a few lines" to my post after you posted your comment. All I did was tweak the wording for clarity. The parenthetical reference to my father's death was always in there, as a footnote of sorts to the title I chose for the post.

The point was not--as you imply--that effective medicine could have (or should have) rendered my father immortal. The point was to underscore the absurdity of the medical establishment's insistence on listing as "cured" anyone who survives five years after diagnosis--as was the case with my father. He survived his five years. Was pronounced "cured." Then died of a "recurrence" within months.

It is an abuse of language--a public-relations gesture, if you will--to use the word "cured" (or "healed") in connection with people who die of the malady of which they were cured.

RevRon's Rants said...

Don't you just LOVE commenters who ignore the substance of what you've written and focus instead upon criticizing what they deem to be your motivation for writing? But of course, such people have no agenda themselves, right? :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

Perhaps the commercial would have been less objectionable if the closing caption had been, "Nurses care."

And Steve, whaddaya mean that prospective book you serialized is "stillborn?" As some of us have pointed out before, there's more than one way to get published these days. If it's important enough to get out there, which I think it is, perhaps a form of self-publishing would allow you to make some money with it, and a trade publisher can always pick it up later.

RevRon's Rants said...

What she said! You certainly wouldn't be the first published author who ended up publishing his own e-book (and doing quite well with it).

And we've had clients who self-published, promoted her book well, then ended up having their books auctioned among several trade publishers. It's not that difficult if you've got a quality product, and you're way ahead of most folks in the game already.

End of lecture, professor. :-)

LizaJane3 said...

Steve, I see your point (I really do). You would prefer the ad to say, "Nursing Eases Death and Makes Dying (or perhaps recuperating if they're lucky) Patients Less Miserable." True, yes, that would be more accurate. You're pissed at the hijacking of words. So am I. I'm a total language snob (and we have such a good one to work with in English -- so deep and precise) who bemoans the loss of perfectly good, highly specific words to the vague swamp of "positive-speak" and "corporate-ese." But anonymous is right, too. Nurses HELP. And really, I don't think you're denying the fact that kind nurses make a difference -- only that the difference is NOT life or death. Yes, of course that easing of pain and sadness and anxiety is worth something (of course it is), but it's not the point of the ad campaign, and that is what pisses you off. Nurses are not literally HEALING, they're NURTURING. But the more truthful "Nurses nurse" is not a very effective ad campaign.

Myna said...

It is perhaps the luxury of the Latin West that so many should wish to be soothed by the magical language of New Ageism...that amalgamation of grand misappropriation, as you rightfully point out (and indigenous people likely agree with).

A concentrated decline of the critical thought process inside the present social mechanism deafens the ear/mind connection. It's what gives Fox News an audience and Wayne Dyer a house in Hawaii. Fighting that is the greatest obstacle in pointing out unreality, but I think it is an crucial argument.

Steve Salerno said...

Myna, don't know if we've heard from you before, but I'm glad you took a moment to weigh in now. Very well put.

Anonymous said...

From my course book...

Many (although by no means all) books written in the vernacular were practical, self-help books for non-practitioners. One of the most popular was the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum. (The title translates as The Regimen of Health of Salerno. Salerno, a town in Italy, was famous for its medical teaching, so rules of health from Salerno would be considered especially good and effective.) Originally written in Latin verse around the middle of the thirteenth century and later translated into English, the text taught readers how to stay healthy through diet, exercise and hygiene. Here is its very basic outline of anatomy, from a version by Sir John Harington called The School of Salernum and published in 1608:
Now if perhaps some have desire to know,
The number of our bones, our teeth, our veins,
This verse ensuing plainly it doth show,
To him that doth observe, it taketh pains:
The teeth thrice ten, and two, twice eight a row.
Eleven score bones save one in us remains:
For veins, that all may vain in us appear,
A vein we have for each day in the year:
All these are like in number and connection.
The difference grows in bigness and complexion.

Steve Salerno said...