Healthcare providers and the saber‑toothed tiger
Friday, October 13, 2017
When an individual suffers from an acute injury or a chronic condition, he or she enters into the healthcare system in pursuit of protection against uncertainty. That uncertainty arises from fear, which is a direct byproduct of living with illness.
The fear experienced by the sick person is instinctive and atavistic, with the reptilian brain seeking relief from all risks to the self. The ill person wants relief from suffering and attention for their distress. It is here that the healthcare professional steps in to even up the odds.
The saber-toothed tiger
From a deeply ancient perspective, humans learned to run from existential threats (like the proverbial saber-toothed tiger) in order to live to see another day. This is a natural reaction to a threat to life and limb.
In the 21st century, our individual and collective well-being is exposed to danger from countless outside sources, including but not limited to the political hot potato of healthcare reform, the opioid crisis, mass shootings, war, climate change and natural disasters.
Healthcare professionals run interference against the saber-toothed tigers of day-to-day contemporary life by, for example, urging patients to quit smoking, increase exercise and eat in a healthier manner. Likewise, patients can be advised to undergo routine screenings and adhere to self-care regimens that lend themselves to wellness and longevity.
When events like mass shootings rock our world, the healthcare infrastructure shifts into overdrive, with a laser focus on the saving of imperiled lives — healthcare reform be damned.
As hotly contested as our healthcare system may be, when a modern saber-toothed tiger erupts, healthcare providers and first responders take bold action in order to fulfill their mission of delivering health and safety to others.
In our current world, we see these types of threats daily, and we can easily despair even as we celebrate the heroism and courage of the doctors, nurses, police officers, fire fighters and others who consistently give their all. The saber-toothed tigers are alive and well, and healthcare providers are often the bulwark between life and death.
Existential threats persist
Cancer, diabetes, addiction and heart disease ravage our society with high rates of morbidity and mortality. Gun violence and sexual violence are rampant, and we strive to do our best to decrease these threats in any way we can. The public health efforts to normalize the use of seat belts and bike helmets are examples of such methods of successful prevention, as is the relatively successful campaign against smoking.
Sadly, larger existential threats like nuclear annihilation and world war can indeed impact individual mental and spiritual health — and ultimately physical health, if we consider the mind-body connection. Threats to the very safety and security of the world can disturb our peace of mind and increase the symptoms of stress that do damage to our bodies’ organs.
Healthcare activists and change agents
Organizations like International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) all do their best to tackle these larger, weightier issues. The American Nurses Association (ANA) and nurse activists fight in the halls of Congress and state legislatures to suppress legislation that is contrary to public health and to support commonsense bills that will uplift the health of the people.
On the individual level, nurses and other healthcare providers can be agents of change and activism in their own workplaces. While IPPNW and the ANA dig deep into root causes and larger socioeconomic issues, the nurse with her boots on the ground can advocate for patients, speak out against institutional norms that endanger patients and providers and demand safe staffing levels and other needed changes.
Healthcare activists and change agents come in many forms, acting on the local, regional, national and international levels. This addresses the larger forces that threaten our collective well-being and safety.
The local and the global
Even as these universal battles are waged on the national and international stage, heroism and courage are routinely demonstrated as healthcare workers save lives in the streets, in ERs, during routine office visits and on operating room tables.
The saber-toothed tigers are real, and they come in many guises and shapes. Whether it's the ravages of opioid addiction and heart disease or the anger of a cowardly and misguided shooter, the healthcare system and its human components will continue to step into the fray in the interest of the greater good.
It has always been this way, and always will.
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