Violence of Medicine


I’ve been thinking about the violent nature of medicine. Many of the ways humans have devised to preserve our lives feel counterintuitive and dangerous. We inject viruses into babies, to keep them from getting sick. We poison people with radiatin to shrink tumors threatening them. We stick tubes in people, breaking their skin to do so. Surgeons cut us open and remove diseased tissue. Sometimes they take away dying organs to save a body, or remove limbs to preserve life. 

I was raised in a faith healing cult and doctors were my childhood bogeymen. Other kids watched Stephen King’s It and developed a fear of clowns. I got true medical malpractice horror stories, like the time twenty some years ago when doctors at Tampa General cut off a healthy leg rather than the diseased one next to it, all because someone held an x-ray backwards while reading it. I didn’t hear about the hundreds of thousands of successful procedures.

I didn’t hear about the medical context. Grabbing a stranger from behind to wrap your arms around them and push upward on their abdomen would be assault in nearly every circumstance, but if the stranger is choking, that’s exactly what you should do. It’s called the Heimlich manuever. Cutting someone open with a knife is usually a crime, but with a lot of training, oversight, and patient consent, it’s allowed. 

Doctors save lives sometimes, and sometimes they create disabilities in the process. Amputation is a violent, disabling act that can save life. Those words feel like they should be more contradictory but humans are creative, resilient, adaptive beings and we have learned that sometimes violence can be a productive part of the answer. Premature infants are being saved earlier and earlier, a wonderful thing. They are born, and survive, weaker and more prone to developmental or physical disabilities. Progress sometimes looks like more disabled and sickly people. 

In the cult disabilities were genetic, caused by traumatic births, or developed by negligence. We kids weren’t vaccinated. Abortion was unspeakable and even ultrasounds were sin, so no one terminated for disability. Our disabilities might be our parents’ fault or no one’s. They never pointed to something our folks got right. Medicine has poisoning and maiming and side effects yet somehow it still works better than our gentler seeming prayer and waiting. This is what the woo left and cult right have in common, this understanding that medicine is violent and fear of that. 

Prayer and Bible study, essential oils and herbs all feel kinder, gentler, more merciful. That’s a product of branding efforts, to be sure, but it’s also a product of sexism and racism. The American Medical Association was formed as an all white boys club and most US medical schools excluded people of color and white women from entry. Both religiosity and herbalism are culturally associated with our concept of woman, and “alternative medicine” appeals by invoking colonial era gawping at dark skinned mystics. 

But prayer and devotion are no guarantees. Essential oils can burn the skin and lungs. Herbs can be fatal in high doses. And all of them delay people seeking real, scary, violent, semi toxic, medical science. Medicine is violent and sometimes that violence disables, and sometimes that disability is the difference between life and death. These are strange and obvious ideas I’m still coming to terms with. 

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