Thoughts on Disease and Disability

April 5, 2010 at 8:42 am | Posted in Philosophy | 3 Comments
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I am learning about spina bifida. A few weeks ago, someone close to me told me that their child, due in two months, has been diagnosed, in utero, with spina bifida. I knew in general what the condition is. I have known that for a long time; one of my students had it when I lived in a remote community of the Northern Territory in the 1990s. However, I hadn’t studied the condition in any depth – until now.

It is amazing what a difference it makes when one you care about is affected. Now, I want to know all about it. I want to know what it is (the vertebrae that normally cover and protect the spinal cord do not develop properly; the spinal cord and its covering may protrude through the opening and be damaged). I want to know why it occurs (70% of cases are caused by a lack of folate; 30% by a mix of causes, many unknown). I want to know what the possible effects are (they vary widely, from very little effect to severe disability, depending upon the level of nerve damage and cerebral fluid). And I want to know how I can help and support this young couple when their baby arrives.

Most, if not all families will become familiar with some form of chronic disease or disability at some point. After all, most people don’t have completely healthy lives – and nobody lives forever. My immediate family (parents, self, siblings, children) had, and has its own generous share of afflictions – polio, back problems, aortic aneurysm, Type 1 diabetes, Malabsorption Syndrome, both osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, liver disease, macular degeneration, breast cancer, coeliac disease, lymphoma – these are a just a quick sample.

How we face and manage our health problems tells a lot about us as individuals and as families. We may be alone, or we may have a family and friends around us. Some do the ‘poor me’ act and wallow in self-pity; others say, “How do I fight this, and what weapons and support do I need?” Those with a positive, can-do attitude will most likely do better in their battle than those who dwell on the negative side of their illness. I have seen many examples of both attitudes, both within and outside of the family circle 

What we must beware of is the temptation to define ourselves by our afflictions, as if they are what make us. I know some people who do this and they are boring as hell! Ask them, “How are you today?”, and you get a run-down of every symptom they’ve suffered in the last ten years. Ask the positive ones and it’s “Great, thanks” or “I’m doing fine”. They focus on the good things they have; they are not their affliction.

Of course, in some cases, it is not the one with the problem who defines them, but those around them, those they meet, society in general. This is so when there are obvious signs of a disability – a wheelchair or a walker, a guide dog or a cane, perhaps a bodily indication, as in Downs syndrome, a stroke or some visible disfigurement. In those cases, the person must deal with other people’s attitudes as well as living with his/her own challenges.

And that brings me back to this unborn child. I wonder how much he will be affected, and what other people’s attitudes will be towards him. I am proud of the soon-to-be parents for taking on what may prove to be a major challenge – they didn’t take the easy out. I know that they have the required strength, and I believe that family and friends will provide the love, help and support they will need to raise a child that knows it is loved, and has a positive attitude towards life.

© Linda Visman 5th April, 2010

What is Happiness?

March 28, 2010 at 6:20 am | Posted in Philosophy | 1 Comment
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What is Happiness? I know, it has been a topic of thought and discussion for as long as the human race has been capable of thinking and of putting those thoughts into words. Perhaps it was the females who began this as a topic of conversation. After all, we know the stereotypical representation: the women gather to talk feelings, while the men talk hunting and sport (of all kinds), or work.

But what do you think? Is happiness the acquisition or ownership of things? As in “I’ll be happy when I have the lovely big house with a BMW and a Mercedes in the garage (or any other status symbol)”. Perhaps, to you, it is beating the opposition – the other candidate or party in politics; the opposing player or team in sport; the rival in any other field of combat.

Do you think happiness is having the person of your dreams, having other dreams come true; being beautiful or handsome, clever or witty, healthy and active; being accepted by the group you need to belong to; achieving wellbeing, peace and harmony? In other words,  feeling good when things go well in life, when you get what you want. In fact, practically every dictionary and many other references refer to good feelings, such as contentment and satisfaction, brought on by good fortune. Happiness appears to be an emotion, one that is dependent on, or bestowed by, pleasant external conditions.

But life isn’t like that. At times – too often, we believe – things do not go as planned. Something happens to bring you crashing to earth with a thud – a financial loss, a heart attack, losing a child or a spouse. Or you may suddenly realise that the happiness you initially felt over your acquisitions and achievements has faded, and you must try for a higher level, the next pot of gold. I have seen many people who seem to have everything – wealth, a lovely home and family, friends, possessions – and yet they are unhappy. An emotion dependent on external factors does not ensure the achievement of lasting happiness.

Sometimes, though, we meet a person who appears to be happy in spite of setbacks or loss, ill-health or poverty. Most of us look askance at the person who claims to be happy under adverse conditions, who accepts whatever life throws at them and cheerfully carries on. They are just too good to be true. But the evidence of their lives shows they are real. They may be knocked for six at first but, before too long, they come back and face life again with a positive outlook and a smile. How can they do that?

I know such a person, and he has shown me, through his example, how to achieve happiness. Contrary to popular understanding, he claims that happiness is not an emotion dependent on external conditions, but an internal choice. Happiness comes from a person deciding to cultivate a positive view of life, rather than a negative one. This can be achieved, to a large extent, by embracing what some call an “attitude of gratitude”.

Changing how we think can lead to amazing changes. How many people read and were changed by putting into practice the concepts in Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking”? Gratitude is an emotion common to all races, a thankful and positive response to receiving a gift. It is more than appreciation, and the focus is on the gift and the giver, rather than on the self. Although it is an emotion, gratitude can also be a choice. We can harness this powerful and positive emotion by choosing to practise it; to be thankful in all situations.

Practising gratitude changes one’s entire outlook on life. In being grateful for any small thing, we begin to see how much we really have. We look at our families, friends, or workmates, our homes and possessions – no matter how small they may be, at our surroundings and at the natural world. When we look, we make a choice to see the positives. In focusing on these, we do not let in the negatives – or we at least minimise them and become less affected by them.

While the phrase “attitude of gratitude” is often used in a Christian context, it is not limited to that or to any other belief system. Whether you believe in God, or any other spiritual being, or whether you have no religious beliefs at all, you can practice gratitude.

In practising this positive attitude, you begin to radiate happiness. You attract others to you. Scientific studies show that being grateful can lead to a happier, healthier, more active and longer life, and even to prosperity. Grateful people are more peaceful, more optimistic and have better relationships. I know, because I have seen it. Now, I try to practise the attitude of gratitude in all situations. I have found that it works. I am happy with where I am and what I have, in spite of setbacks and problems.

Thoughts–just mere thoughts–are as powerful as electric batteries–as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. ~Frances Hodgson Burnett

 © Linda Visman, March, 2010.

Health Care in NSW Australia

January 24, 2010 at 10:55 am | Posted in Writing and Life | 3 Comments
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My husband and I have spent the last few days involved with health care professionals. They have been a general practitioner, the nursing staff in the Emergency and Coronary Care Units of our nearest city hospital, as well as specialist cardiologists there. There could have been up to forty people who diagnosed, treated, operated on or cared for my husband after his heart attack and subsequent angioplasty.

0f all these people, there were none who seemed to have anything but the highest regard for their calling. There were some who were a little taciturn and others who were beset by their own cares, but all, carried out their jobs efficiently and effectively. Most of them even gave that extra touch that makes the patient feel they are not just another ‘case’, but an individual.

One doctor in Emergency was exceptional. She was caring in her manner, yet methodical and clear in her questions, in gaining as complete an understanding of my husband’s symptoms and situation as possible. She was just as clear in repeating the information back to us to make sure she had it right. She ordered appropriate tests to gain clinical knowledge of his condition. Her liaison with a coronary care practitioner ensured that she, though not a specialist in cardiology herself, received correct advice on what course to take so as to come up with the best diagnosis and care.

The system worked effectively as well. My husband was admitted to the Coronary Care Unit, and an angiogram was scheduled for the following morning. During this procedure, an arterial blockage was detected, an angioplasty was done, and he now has a stent in place to carry the blood through that artery. During the procedure and after it, he was cared for by nursing staff, who work long shifts, especially at night. Even the hospital food was good.

I have had my own experiences with hospitals, in surgical, obstetric, general and oncology wards. Many negative things are said about our hospitals and our health system in general. Some of them are true. They are under-staffed and under-funded; they can be hotbeds of political intrigue; sometimes, mistakes occur; sometimes these are covered up.

I do not believe, however, that the general body of medical, nursing and support staff in hospitals should be condemned for not being perfect. Health care may be a ‘political football’ at governmental and higher administrative levels, but the workers themselves simply do the best the can with the resources they have, efficiently, effectively, and with a real care for the patients. My husband and I thank them for that.

© Linda Visman 2010

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