Michael Attas: 'Hidden stains' of life affect our well-being

Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Author: MICHAEL ATTAS Guest columnist


She brought a tattered, faded, old, black-and-white photograph to her office visit to see me.

Her appointment was allegedly about her difficult-to-manage hypertension, but inevitably we talked about the past — her family, background, career as a public school teacher in the South in the days of segregation, and the role of education in the lives of young people.

She was a frail, elderly, lovely black woman; a bit hard of hearing but still sharp as a tack.

The photograph was taken in Mexico City in the early 1950s. It was of five young black women from Alabama, recent college graduates, standing with their faculty sponsor under one of the beautiful national arches there. They were dressed in their Sunday finest, and the faces were glowing.

They had driven through the heart of the southern U.S., crossed the border on their graduation road trip, and were studying the history of Mexico.

She looked up at me and her eyes got a far-away gleam for a moment, and then spoke words that ripped into my heart.

“You know, when we took our trip and when that picture was taken was the first time I didn’t feel black. I felt just human,” she said.

Dignity and grace

They had endured separate hotels in the South, designated water fountains and restrooms, restaurants where they had no seats, and the ongoing stains of racism in a time that now seems almost surreal.

Yet they made it. They survived. All went to college, got degrees, and lived their lives with dignity and grace.

My patient had five siblings, all of whom got college diplomas, as did their parents. It was expected. It was the norm. Failure and blame were not options.

How is this possible, I thought to myself. How did the young people in that era put aside their hurt and pain and anger and simply hunker down and do good jobs of loving, serving others, and living full, productive lives?

I am not sure I have all of the answers, but my observations as a clinician also told me a bit of hidden truths about her particular story that I shall share.

We know there is statistical evidence that certain minority groups have higher incidence of certain diseases.

Some of that may well be genetic predisposition, some socioeconomic factors, and some cultural due to lack of access to medical care in early years.

But the interesting fact I discovered is that the more I listened to my patient’s stories, the easier her blood pressure became to manage.

The telling of her stories seemed to liberate something inside her, and instead of simply prescribing more medication we just became friends who care for one another. Her hypertension became a mere nuisance instead of a threat.

The value of listening

It is far too easy to order one more technological test after the other and reach for yet one more prescription pad to write out for the latest and best medication.

But we often just need to sit and listen. I am convinced that we all have a sort of “hidden stain” on our lives — something that has left us wounded and vulnerable to disease — and surfaces in odd times and in odd places.

This information never replaces good sound science, of course. But it seems to me that the more glimpses we have of our patients’ lives that allow us to see into the shadowy, often suppressed places, the better clinicians we become.

As a society that is struggling with huge issues of health care reform, financing and shrinking budgets, let us never lose fact that behind any health care encounter are human faces on faded photographs.

They have stories to tell. Their health and well-being is at stake, as is the health of our country. Without a healthy work force, we have no chance to have a healthy economic engine that leads the world.

No easy answers

There are no easy answers to the issues we face as a society in the world of health care. These issues cannot be reduced to sound bites by politicians running for office. Whatever comes out of our current patchwork system must simply never lose sight of the fact that lives are at stake.

The stains of the past always affect the present. And the future is never exactly how we imagine it to be.

Any changes we make must ensure fairness and equity for all. To do anything less is just one more step backward into a distant past. We can, and must, do better.

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

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A return to the Trib

Dr. Michael Attas returns today to the Tribune-Herald with his unique and popular column after taking a break to complete a book, which will be published soon.

A Waco cardiologist, an ordained minister and a Baylor University professor, Attas brings perspectives of faith and philosophy to issues of contemporary medicine.

Section: accesswaco
Record Number: 17519796
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Michael Attas: 'Hidden stains' of life affect our well-being

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