Essays - Spring 2015

Failure to Heal

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Today’s medical industry thrives on diagnosing and curing, but it doesn’t reach the soul

By Philip Alcabes

March 4, 2015

It’s strange that healing is absent from medical discourse today. Cure, resolution, recovery, and rehabilitation retain semantic currency; you can find these words throughout the medical textbooks and professional health literature. But healing, with its resonance of renewal, has been banished to the precincts of so-called alternative medicine. Spurned, it seems.

I was struck by this expulsion recently when I witnessed an act that appeared, against the backdrop of modern medical practice, to be a phantom visitation. My father, nearly 90 years old, a veteran of a handful of different cancers and at that point losing blood uncontrollably from an aggressive new one, was in a hospital bed. “Scientists are always working on new things; maybe they’ll come up with a cure,” he said to me, more out of what I recognized as an irrepressible urge to bargain with the angels than out of any genuine optimism.

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Philip Alcabes is visiting professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York and professor of public health at Adelphi University. He is writing a book on psychic distress, psychiatry, and medication.

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