O God, Please Heal Her

“El na refa na la,” “O God, please heal her.” It’s striking how much of the Bible has to do with illness and healing. Today we’re under pressure to present ourselves as omnipotent, invulnerable, immortal, but that’s ridiculous; that’s not who or what we are. So many of us have illnesses of one kind or another, or at least have had them at some point. We cope with them in different ways, but they’re there. Some people need to talk about them; some do not. Some want companionship during and around the doctor visits; others would rather handle them alone. But the truth persists. No one is invulnerable, and it’s better that way. An illness can teach us a little bit about ourselves and what we have in common with others. It’s no accident that Chekhov was a doctor.

About twenty-four years ago I was diagnosed with Gorlin Syndrome, an inherited condition with multiple and varying symptoms, particularly basal cell carcinoma tumors. I had my first surgery for basal cell carcinoma more than thirty years ago. So many surgeries followed over the years that I lose count. It has been essential to me, all this time, to keep on going with my life, to avoid absence from work if at all possible, and to deal with it quietly. I don’t like being fussed over; it adds to the stress. Or rather, the fuss, no matter how kindly intended, can be more stressful than the surgeries themselves, since it carries the expectation that I keep people updated, tell them how I am, take care of their feelings and worries, etc. I am not secretive about my surgeries, but I like to treat them with simplicity, as just another thing I have to do.

So why am I writing about it now? I think many others, young, old, and in between, may be in a similar position, dealing with conditions that don’t just go away, be they panic attacks, cancer, liver problems, allergies, or something else. There’s no need to pretend that these things don’t exist.

Also, I had surgery today, my fourth this fall. Two were very small; I was able to have both lesions removed in one evening, in less than half an hour. One was larger, but the surgeon removed it completely in one pass (on a day when we didn’t have any classes). This last one—in the conchal bowl of the ear—has required six doctor’s appointments (two at the G1 Intézet and four at the Semmelweis Klinika) and will require two more followups. Fortunately there won’t be any damage to my hearing, and any cosmetic damage will be minimal and barely visible—but it has required more appointments than most. I think I’ll be all set after the followups, but today I was embarrassed to realize that I wouldn’t be teaching any classes at all. I originally thought I’d just zip in there, zip out again, head back to Szolnok, and catch the second half of the day. But the surgery started later than I expected, and the anesthesia left my face partly numb, so that it would have been hard to teach anyway. I sent my students classwork assignments, which they received and completed.

Doctors both here and in the U.S. have gone out of their way to help me. My followup appointments will both be during the winter break, so I won’t have to miss classes. I trust in the quality of care that I have been receiving in Budapest. And it’s affordable, too; for the most part, everything here has been covered by my health insurance. The exception is when I go to a private doctor or clinic. But the fees there are reasonable, and some of them offer evening appointments, so it’s worth it.

The doctors do something similar to Mohs surgery here, just as in the U.S. The main difference is that there’s no way to get lab results on the spot, so we have to wait about ten days for them. If it then turns out that not everything was removed, I have to return for another pass. Because of this, the surgeons generally take out a slightly larger piece initially than they would in the U.S., to increase the chances of getting it all. (In the U.S., I have had Mohs surgeries where the doctors cut pieces out of me five times in a single day, with an hour or two in between. While the idea is to minimize the cosmetic damage, this can turn into a grueling day. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages.) The lab reports here are extremely detailed and descriptive, and get added to my medical records, so I learn about what was going on at the site of the lesion. I can see them online as soon as they become available.

As I mentioned, the doctors have been flexible with me, doing their best to make appointments that will work for me. One of them was exchanging texts with me for several weeks, trying to find an appointment that would cause me the least possible disruption. Another one let me come to the G1 Intézet (in the evening) to have my stitches removed, even though the surgery itself was at the Szent Imre Kórház.

My school has been very understanding too. Fortunately I’ve been absent very little, and they know I am doing all I can to keep it this way. But they also believe in taking care of yourself. The principal has told me repeatedly that health comes first, and he means it.

But back to the larger topic. No human escapes illness. Some have it worse than others, but we all come down with something at some point. The people who dedicate their lives to healing—doctors, nurses, therapists, counselors, and others—are doing holy work. It doesn’t end, since no one becomes completely immune to disease or distress, ever. Instead, we become more vulnerable over time. And stronger too. Stronger and weaker at once.

Illness isn’t a contained phenomenon that comes and goes. It affects your life. The surgeries have affected my face and other body parts over time. My nose was once symmetrical; it isn’t now. But that, too, is something people have in common. (I don’t mean the nose in particular; I mean anything that sets you apart a little bit.) It isn’t a cause for shame.

To everyone dealing with a health problem, I would say: you are not alone, and you have many possibilities. You can find a way to handle this and also make the most of your life, while also allowing life to make the most of you, imperfections included. Not being perfect is a gift in itself, to yourself and others.

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it, most recently on December 23.

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2 Comments

  1. veronikakisfalvi4972

     /  December 20, 2021

    Thank you for sharing this. As I get older, illness becomes more and more a part of my life – either my own increasing fragility, as well as that of my circle of family and friends. I wish you a speedy recovery from this last bout, and of course, stay safe as best as possible from the new COVID threats. It’s looking like we’re going to be locking down here once again.

    Reply

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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