Michael Attas: Love's power to help the ill heal

Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) - Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Every physician has seen it, but I am certain none of us can explain it.

We observe, we note, we try to learn. But when confronted with an unexpected recovery from a devastating illness, we run directly up against the limitations of human knowledge.

For some, this is terribly frustrating. For others, it is liberating.

It is that innate curiosity that for me is so revealing and worth exploring. It is, of course, the foundation of all good science and research.

How? Why this case and not others? How can we harness this information and use it for the benefit of other similar cases?

Back from a stroke

In a remarkable book called “A Hundred Names for Love,” author Diane Ackerman recounts the story of her husband’s slow and prolonged recovery from a devastating stroke.

He also was a gifted writer, a literary giant who often was known as a wordsmith — a lover of language who by their own admission loved the beauty and power of fidgeting with words.

After a sudden and massive stroke, he was left with total global aphasia. He could not utter a word nor apparently understand them.

For years, the only word he could say was “MEM” — a meaningless monosyllable. But with the help of a gifted speech therapist and the unwavering love of his wife, he gradually recovered his language and the ability not only to speak but also to write again.

Playing word games, they began a journey to healing that seemed to take place against all anatomic odds.

The part of the human brain that processes language was seemingly destroyed, yet language emerged from darkness and silence.

As in the case of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot by a gunman in January, some humans seem to have this remarkable capacity for regeneration, healing and wholeness.

In a review of Ackerman’s book, Dr. Abraham Verghese — a professor at Stanford Medical School and an author — sums up the wonder that science often encounters when odds are defied.

“Since we are all mortal, none of us will experience love without also experiencing loss,” he writes. “This book has done what no other has done for me in recent years: it has renewed my faith in the redemptive power of love, the need to give it and get it unstinting, and to hold nothing back, settle for nothing less, because when even life fall away, love endures. This book is proof.”

And for me, those wise comments get to the heart of what this book can teach us about the factors that lead to healing and recovery.

There is a huge volume of research about neurobiology, immunology of healing, anatomy, cellular recovery, and the ability of the brain to sort of “re-wire” itself.

We don’t get it all. Maybe we never will. We are always learning more about the process of healing and recovery. But perhaps we are missing something much deeper and more profound.

A deeper look

Maybe what we see on CT scans, MRIs, in the laboratory tests and in the tissues we sample are all just the consequences of an undercurrent of another story.

Maybe we should be looking deeper into nothing less than the origins of what it means to be human.

Perhaps we are hard-wired for love, not separation. Perhaps we are designed for relationship with one another and for community, not for rampant individualism.

Perhaps it is in the sharing of stories and the power of language that the gift of true healing emerges.

We don’t yet have the technology to “measure” this, but it seems to me to be a common denominator.

All of us in medicine can remember stories of how unusual healing transpired. Yet I cannot remember one case where that occurred in the absence of love or the language to tell our stories to one another.

Dr. Michael Attas is a local physician, a medical humanities professor and an Episcopal priest. Email him at Michael_Attas@baylor.edu.

Section: accesswaco
Record Number: 15027545
(c) 2011 Robinson Media Co. LLC - Waco Tribune-Herald

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Michael Attas: Love's power to help the ill heal

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