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On display during the State of the Union speech was the vacant chair that would have been occupied by Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who could not attend because she was in a hospital recovering from a bullet wound to the head. Recuperation could take as long as a year.
The empty chair got to everyone, myself included. What got to me even more was the photograph of her husband, Mark Kelly, holding her hand in the hospital as the couple watched the speech on television.
I could imagine what might be on the left side of that cropped photo. Nine years ago I lay in a hospital bed with a diagnosis of stage III ovarian cancer. Not the same kind of debilitation, but the contrast of before and after was almost as stark.
Over the last two weeks, old photographs of Giffords have popped up everywhere. She is usually smiling. Usually well dressed. Usually beautiful. Except for bystanders and the doctors and nurses in Tucson on the day of the shooting, most of us have in our mind's eye a happy and engaged Gabrielle Giffords.
But she is no longer that woman. Even if her recovery is the most phenomenal in medical history, she will be a new woman.
After trauma, what people really want is not recovery but restoration. They want to erase the event from their timelines. They want to be unscarred. They want their bodies whole and their optimism intact.
Such optimism can be hard to come by. Even if you can find such hope, that doesn't mean you'll survive. You may have the "fighting spirit" of 10 women, but a fighting spirit won't save your life.
Writes Richard P. Sloan of Columbia University Medical Center: "It is difficult enough to be injured or gravely ill. To add to this the burden of guilt over a supposed failure to have the right attitude toward one's illness is unconscionable. Linking health to personal virtue and vice not only is bad science, it's bad medicine."
The premise that we can wish away illness with positive thinking dates back over a century, and persists to this day. In the 1800s, Phineas Quimby founded the New Thought movement, later popularized by Norman Vincent Peale in the 1950s and today by "The Secret" (the latter mercilessly mocked on "The Chaser's War on Everything," a satirical Aussie TV show).
I'd love to beat back cancer with my will to live, or "earn" good luck, but I believe my effort would be as futile as Juan Ponce de León's search for a Fountain of Youth in the 16th century.
In 1984, Southern writer Reynolds Price discovered a tumor on his spinal cord. His treatment left him paralyzed from the waist down. He learned that no matter what he did, he could not have the one thing he wanted most – his old life back.
In his 1994 memoir, "A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing," Price wrote:
The kindest thing anyone could have done for me, once I finished five weeks' radiation, would be to look me square in the eye and say clearly, "Reynolds Price is dead. Who will you be now? Who can you be and how can you get there, double time?" Cruel and unusable as it may have sounded in the wake of trauma, I think its truth would have snagged deep in me and won my attention eventually, far sooner than I found it myself. Yet to this day with all the kindness done for me, no one has so much as hinted in my direction; and I've yet to meet another dazed person who's heard it when they needed it most -- Come back to life, whoever you'll be. Only you can do it.
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