The strangest thing just happened to me. I was reading someone else’s book, when this insight spontaneously dropped in my mind. I snapped to attention. THAT’S IT! All these bits and pieces of family lore sprang into context. I realized that part of why I was able to fully recover from chronic pain and fatigue was that I’ve deeply internalized a series of family legends about healing and trauma. Maybe the reason other people haven’t had the same experience is that it hasn’t occurred to them that they can?
First, there’s my story. I was diagnosed with a thyroid nodule when I was 23. I was supposed to get a needle biopsy, but I procrastinated for over a year. When I finally went in, I was lying on a gurney in a paper gown, being prepped for the surgery, and the ultrasound revealed that the nodule was gone. Surgery was canceled and they sent me home.
Then, there’s my brother’s story. His spine was fractured in three places in a terrifying construction accident. He was left to lie contorted over his tool bag in the mud because they were afraid to move him. He’s training for his first marathon this year, and right now his mile time is sub-seven minutes.
Then, there’s my auntie’s story. (Paternal branch). She was diagnosed with fourth-degree liver failure and given six months to live. That was the year 2000. Still here in 2018.
Then there’s my grandfather’s story. (Maternal branch). He got mumps and was told it had made him sterile. Thus, his fourth and fifth children came as something of a surprise. If the doctors were right in Granddad’s case, I wouldn’t be here and neither would my mom.
There are probably more, if I do some interviews, but these are the family legends that popped into mind when I had my startling epiphany.
So what gives? Does getting mumps turn your grandchildren into superheroes, or what?
I’m not sure what. I have some guesses, though.
Note that each of the four stories I shared involves a different category physical problem. Endocrine dysfunction, skeletal injury, organ failure, infectious illness. There are also two separate genetic lines involved; my auntie has no blood relation to my grandfather of legend. If there are any unifying biological themes here, I have no idea what they might be.
Doctors tend to be pragmatists. It’s the nature of their work. Generally, what works for most people most of the time is close enough to truth to get the job done. Most people are functional, at least on a basic level, and human longevity is double what it was two hundred years ago, so there’s a lot they’re doing right.
There are some glaring, epic flaws in Western medical training. The first is that healthy and well people don’t come back. Feedback comes from the persistently unhealthy, those who didn’t get better and are still having trouble. Where are the data on all the people who got better? Second, the process of earning a medical degree is so contrary to physical well-being that it’s a wonder anyone survives. Chronic sleep deprivation, stress, overwork, and burnout are core requirements of the curriculum. Third, doctors are not taught nutrition! We have a fix-what’s-broken perspective rather than a maintain-and-improve perspective.
Would a doctor recognize what a healthy and thriving person was doing right? Enough to teach it to other patients?
I can tell you what I did that I believe reversed my thyroid disease. While I was busy procrastinating and not wanting to find out whether I had cancer, I began a very strenuous exercise program. I went from zero to riding my bicycle at least fifteen miles a day, on hilly terrain that required every one of my 21 gears. I got so strong that I could pick up my bike, rest it on my shoulder, and dash up a flight of stairs without thinking about it.
My brother swears by yoga. He was in great shape when he broke his back; it’s possible that if he hadn’t been so lean he might not have survived his accident. He’s also been a vegetarian for like twenty years (just saying).
As for my auntie and my granddad, I have no idea. I’m not sure whether they would have had any guesses either. It wouldn’t be wrong to list the character trait of stubbornness here.
Intuitively, I think part of what’s going on is whether we believe in a story, and how that belief influences our behavior. There can also be a huge gulf between what the doctor actually said and how the patient INTERPRETS what the doctor said. I have heard more than one person tell me, quote, “I physically can’t lose weight” based on what a doctor supposedly said, and I bet a shiny copper penny that no doctor has ever said that to anyone, ever, at any time. I also don’t think that medical professionals use the word “incurable,” but we tend to hear that a lot, too. For some reason, a lot of people positively adore talking about illness, disease, surgery, prescriptions, accidents, trauma, and negative outcomes. What this variety of person does with otherwise sound medical information, who can say?
So. One person goes to the doctor with [HEALTH PROBLEM] and eventually recovers. Another person goes to the (same) doctor with [IDENTICAL HEALTH PROBLEM], comes home believing in the problem, and never gets better. Does the second person’s complete package of behavior match the first person’s complete package of behavior? Why are we not studying this?
What I do differently than other people is to introduce myself to doctors as a health-oriented person. I tell them I’m a marathon runner and that I “want to get back in action” or something similar. I tell them that “I try to be as proactive about my health as possible.” Then they look at my labs and realize that my blood work backs me up. While I have the opportunity, I ask as many questions as possible. For instance, I cut my sclera last year, and when I went in to the optometrist, I asked her about this hypothesis that people could gradually correct their vision mechanically by spending more time outdoors and looking at different distances. She said sure, that sounded plausible. I’m one of the only people in my family who has never needed glasses, so I take this to confirm my bias toward exercise and outdoor pursuits. Since I tend to believe that I am entitled to perfect health, I work to attract information that supports my belief - and ignore anything that contradicts it.
Oh, yeah, and my eye healed, too. 20/80 back to 20/20 in two weeks.
Who knows what the future will bring? Maybe I’ll wind up a victim of spontaneous human combustion. Maybe I’ll sprout antlers or turn purple. Who knows? In the meantime, I’m in enviable shape for a middle-aged American woman. I have every intention of living to be 111. I see no reason to change my mind and start adopting negative, pessimistic views about illness and injury. A doctor told me once, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,” and that’s medical advice I actually trust.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.