It is one of the last days of September. The sun, pale and tired, is slowly surrendering the humdrum of earth to the grey, soulless air. My father and I walk to our very final medical appointment, hopeless, exhausted, and befuddled. My father’s labored breathing is the only sound that fills the silence on our trip. As we drift to the entrance, he unexpectedly turns to me and asks: “You never give up, do you?” I smile, knowing I have so much to say, yet saying nothing sometimes says everything.
It all started three years ago when my father came down with pneumonia. He was immediately put on antibiotic treatment, which, at the moment, successfully cleared the infection in his lungs. However, the aftermath of the damage appeared weeks later with severe shortness of breath, cough, and many sleepless nights.
In our desperation to find a cure, we sought every possible medical help we could; unbeknown to us that this was the instigation of a three-year-long sequence of medical visits and tests, which included a hefty list: respirologist, chest X-ray, CT pulmonary angiogram, CT head, cardiologist, several ECGs and echocardiograms, stress test, nephrologist, abdomen ultrasound, thyroid ultrasound, another abdomen ultrasound, a revisit to respirologist, chest/thorax CT scans, CT chest/thorax with contrast, otolaryngologist, allergist, endocrinologist, liver MRI with contrast, abdomen ultrasound, another chest X-ray, chest pa/lateral, CT pulmonary arteries angiogram, more chest X-ray, another thyroid ultrasound, CT head, nuclear parathyroid scan, chest X-ray, CT neck with contrast, chest X-ray, hematologist, gastroenterologists, palatopharyngeal analyst, speech pathologist, a revisit to an otolaryngologist, neurologist — and at last, a head MRI.
Throughout these events, my father underwent numerous blood works, several trips to the ER, a few hospital admissions, and many prescription medications (12 different daily drugs) to alleviate his debilitating symptoms.
Our journey to find a diagnosis was through a dark and gloomy tunnel, though we were not left alone. A constellation of highly knowledgeable and diligent health care workers accompanied us side-by-side throughout the way. These professionals meticulously examined each body part to uncover the cause of my father’s condition.
Nevertheless, they were scratching their heads with no conclusive findings or a diagnosis at the end of every visit. We used to sit at a table: the medical professionals on one side, equipped with numbers, charts, and sophisticated machinery. On the opposite, my frail father melted away with uncertainty and anxiety day by day. Not to forget the difficulties in his capacity to muster his strength and hope against the tyranny of his severe shortness of breath and his declining health.
Experiencing a real sense of suffocation on occasion is a scary one.
During the event, our body surely triggers us to gasp for air and enhances our chance of survival, and then it leaves us to our own devices to mentally cope with horror and anxiety, to accept and find our balance again.
But my father’s struggles to catch a breath and his starvation for air were a constant, day-and-night experience. Here stands one man who led an extraordinary life in which he fought for the well-being of his family, children, and grandchildren, and now the same man fights moments after moments for another breath. And the battle endures.
Three long years passed.
Our hope to find a diagnosis was a light that glimmered ever so weakly and less brightly as time went on. The marching dark clouds of anxiety and uncertainty slowly claimed territory over the fading light of our hope. Every possible cause of my father’s shortness of breath was ruled out. It was all clear that no other test could be done, and we have no diagnosis to even begin the journey of cure and recovery. But in our hearts and mind, we persevered.
The torch of hope in humanity’s everlasting claim to a position above all of creation. Hope is a fragment of desire and trust that we humans can carry in our chest. It is our way of salvation despite pre-ordained suffering that attends every living being. Unyielding to give up hope, we decided to change our path and shift to alternative medicine. Our next destination was an acupuncture and herbal medicine clinic.
That late September day, we walked into Sarkis’s office. I looked at my father sitting on the bed, shaking like a candle flame in the wind. His eyes were weary yet warm with anticipation.
Sarkis heard our story and then began listening to my father’s breathing. He carefully observed how my father’s body moved with each breath: an examination never done in any of the previous medical offices. No stethoscope, oximeter, or sphygmomanometer was in between the patient’s body and the observer’s eyes. In our past journey, we were accustomed to seeing machines, measuring devices, and numbers. Now, we were witnessing solely a human, their observation, attention, and discernment.
It only took Sarkis a few minutes to come up with a diagnosis and a treatment plan. Calmly and confidently, he stated that my father’s breathing rhythm had been altered, possibly due to an episode of pneumonia.
The new rhythm led to a persistent tension in the airway passage muscles, causing labored breathing and a shallow and fast breathing rhythm.
The body truly remembers tensions from a past disease, even when it serves it better to forget. Sarkis prescribed a breathing technique that would decompress the muscle tension and eventually relax the airways. Gone was a plethora of invasive medical tests and diagnostics, and in its place came listening, observing, encouraging, and increased awareness. We left the office enlightened by hope and wisdom. A week later, my father said he was feeling slightly better, and his throat was starting to open up.
Three months have passed since the day we started the treatment. My father was completely healed.
My father’s situation is not uncommon. Focusing on details or body parts instead of observing the body as a whole has become a conventional practice in medicine. In many cases, a part-only view leads to a diminished rate of mortality and increased life expectancy when that way of approach is appropriate to the disease and when the disease is localized enough to be contained in a focused view of medical care. However, this may occasionally lead to other effective diagnoses or treatments being missed.
The human body consists of small, interconnected structures, yet it is also an “integrated whole.”
Through the “The Tale of Elephant in the Dark,” Rumi, the renowned mystic Persian poet of the 13th century, warns us of this same common error when man’s way of thinking about problems of life is too narrowed. The story is about a group of people gathered to see an elephant for the first time in their life, as they had never seen one before.
They are brought to an enclosure where the elephant is held, but it is nighttime with no sources of light to see the animal. Overly impatient to wait for daybreak, the group decides to use their hands in the dark to figure out the shape of the animal. One person touches the leg and thinks that an elephant is a pole-like creature. Someone else touches the ear, thinking it is a fan hanging in the air. Another member touches the trunk and claims the strange animal surely resembles a gutter. No one can agree with another about what an elephant is by only touching a part, and the group leaves before daylight with widely different opinions on an elephant’s features, none accurate to the real thing.
Diagnostics, tools, focused approach, and heavy reliance on pharmaceuticals overshadow the art of listening and observing sick bodies as the whole beings as they are with their unique, individual complexities.
An industrialized medical system wants to design one-size-fits-all solutions in pills, measures, and tools to address medical issues. But we are not industrially-produced homogenous creatures, so the common top-down approach of medicine, despite its strengths in decreasing mortality, has inherent flaws. A complete view of the body, combining different schemas of approach, scanning through the parts as well as observing the body as a unity may save medicine from falling into common loopholes.
My father’s story is a great example of how the combination of these two powerful schools of practice could prevent excessive suffering. We should welcome a new era where our conventional medicine, along with our clever holistic observations and wisdom, can help correctly diagnose and give effective treatment, which would lessen the suffering in our communities, yet save the health care system immensely.
We all go through trials and tribulations of medical hardship in our lives, some greater in difficulty and some less, some early and some late — and that is when we will need to be acknowledged as one whole existence: a human existence. The elephant of our body deserves a shining source of human wisdom that decodes its mysterious existence and eventually depicts our beautiful body parts in unity and harmony.
Fery Pashang is a pharmacist and medical artist. She can be reached on Instagram @artidotedesign.
Image credit: Fery Pashang