Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On the medical profession's response to health

As the previous few posts note, I had some comparatively minor surgery on my elbow a couple of weeks ago, a surgery necessitated by a pattern of falling over in various sports (to be precise: four spills, four different sports). Apparently once you partially dislocate an elbow, it becomes easier and easier to do, such that after four of these injuries, you can pop it out by, say, reaching into a locker, pushing back from the table, or putting your hand in your pocket.

With a longish recovery predicted, and Junebug coming, now was the time to get the surgery, and it seems to have been better than expected: after my 2-week follow-up, my recovery projections were halved. Back to vigorous activity by May instead of by August!

But despite the success of the surgery and the good news, etc. I have been somewhat unsettled (intellectually at least) by a series of interactions that directly preceded the surgery, some of them prep for it, and some of them part of the exam needed for new life insurance.

For example, I had my blood pressure taken about 12 times over the course of the week, and apparently, my blood pressure offers no warning signs. 118 over 70 or thereabouts. Down from way back when I was smoker, but otherwise, no surprises. And my pulse rate was usually around 60-65. Numbers that will alarm no one.

But in every single instance, the person who came across these numbers praised me for them, as if a low blood pressure made me a better person. The nurse who took the vitals for both Willow and I even went so far as to suggest that while Willow "beat" me on blood pressure, I had "beaten" her on heart rate.

Now, I know that medical professionals spend a lot of time with people who are at moments in their lives when such vital signs are not so rosy, and so there is bound to be some natural impulse to comment on the unusual fact of healthy signs. But to praise a person for performing well on such health tests seems to me to fetishize health as a competition. That somehow, my 60 bpm pulse diminishes the sense of healthfulness of Willow's 65 bpm health, and diminishes the way that Willow "treats" her body. Or that her better blood pressure diminishes my maintenance of my body. Or that my ailing mother's chronically high blood pressure (aided, no doubt, by constant pain) is somehow a moral failing.

That we think of even vital signs in this hierarchical way suggests to me the degree to which we are willing to judge, rank and hierarchize based on simplistic measurements and perceptions of bodies that are constructed in complicated and multi-functional and multi-contextual ways strikes me as, at the very least, symptomatic of a cultural conditioning to view the material body as a legible marker of subjectivity, and on a more sinister level, a somewhat more conspicuous and perhaps even vaguely conscious effort on the part of the medical community (and even more, of the medical tchnology and pharmaceutical industries) to transform physical flesh into a value marker, with ideological, moral, and capital value. Wow that was a long sentence. I'll wait while you re-read that.

I have little sense of where to even begin to combat this, though some recent interactions with disability studies scholars suggests that they are on the right track. I think I was sceptical when disability studies first started to blip on my radar some years ago, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that the cultural work being done there is critical not just to understanding certain aesthetic categories, but to creating a more just equitable culture in part through the medical sites where medicalized subjects are made most vulnerable.

1 comment:

Moria said...

A very former gyno once congratulated me on being queer because I would never experience accidental pregnancy. He then congratulated me on the fact that, "as a lesbian" (a term I had not used), I would be at "nearly zero" risk for STDs and STIs. Um. Misinformed and a health-fetishist.

What you say about the value, in all senses, of the healthy body seems to run directly counter to our culture's stigmatization of assigning monetary value to the body through sex work, pornography, or other erotic means. I wonder what it is about the ... what, sublimation? of how we assign value to bodies that enables that contradiction. Discursive tactics that present sex as inherently unhealthy ("dirty," "unsafe," etc) probably contribute. Hmm.