Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sickness and health: Worldview in perspectives on medicine

This morning, while I handed out napkins at the entrance to the dining room, Wayne hovered nearby and shared anecdotes about the various maladies that befall individuals who live on the streets. Mr. Ball needed assistance in carrying a tray of food to his table; he has suffered numerous strokes and now moves at a snail’s-pace shuffle. Wayne, a regular volunteer at the Franciscan Center, observed that strokes can fell a man without warning, and that living in poverty for years only makes recovery more difficult. We marveled at Mr. Ball’s willpower, which kept the elderly man moving despite pain and hardship. Wayne then recalled the story of a couple who I have seen in the Center frequently. “They’re hard to miss,” Wayne told me. “Pathetic.” The man needs a wheelchair because he suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, but both the man and his wife continue to use drugs, which worsen their health and make them appear much older than their roughly forty years. “You’ve got to take care of yourself,” Wayne tells me. He ran six miles a day up until the very day of his heart attack. His excellent physical condition could not prevent the consequences of bad genes, but it did help him to recover quickly and painlessly. “You can’t avoid some things, but if you take care of yourself it’s not so bad.” Wayne’s comment bears an implicit statement about the suffering of the homeless and hungry people around us: they cannot change some things, but they can do their part to keep them from getting worse. People should insure themselves against harm by taking preventative measures. Survival, according to Wayne’s view, is one part luck and one part personal responsibility.
Wayne’s commentary shows his perspective on human suffering; likewise the attitudes of Oilei’s various doctors represent a range of other worldviews. Makarita treats Oilei’s health problem as his fault, exclaiming that after all of his antics it, “serves him right” (4). This perspective places the blame for pain on the individual’s actions. In contrast, the healer Marama’s diagnosis connects Oilei’s pain to Makarita’s snoring; according to her, one person’s problem can affect a problem in another. This interpretation favors placing the blame for pain on negative interactions. Reverend Masu Lasu views the situation as a divine trial like Job’s. His explanation of pain focuses on God’s intent to test and eventually reward individuals. The faith-healer Losana Tonoka claims that Oilei’s pain comes from a devil lodged in his colon. From this perspective, like from that of Seru’s “tuktuk” myth, humans experience suffering as a result of the independent actions of spirits. Doctor James Hamilton represents the rationality of Western medicine, which attributes pain to imbalances and malfunctions of the physical body. Unlike the others who offer their counsel, his treatment method involves no explanatory story. He simply administers medication and leaves, assured that scientific treatment can cure a scientific medical problem. Amini Sese and Domoni Thimailomalangi both rely on magic to miraculously cure Oilei’s pain. For them, the cause of illness has little bearing on its cure because they rely purely on mystical power that they do not claim to understand. Each of these characters represents a different way of viewing human sickness and the individual’s responsibility for preventing or curing it.
Hau’ofa’s parade of characters illustrates the diversity of answers to the crucial question of human suffering. Each worldview, which arises from the ideas of one’s homeland, presents a different perspective on the issue. This causes a range of attitudes towards methods of healing. Hau’ofa suggests that the variety of medical theories corresponds to the variety of ideological homelands from which individuals come. From Wayne’s emphasis on genetics and personal responsibility to Reverend Lasu’s divine explanations, these perspectives illuminate the diversity of homelands’ worldviews.

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