'The Patient' explores waiting, suffering and humanity
Harold Schweizer, professor of English
Posted: April 30, 2010
By Sam Alcorn
LEWISBURG, Pa. — In his 2008 book, On Waiting, Harold Schweizer, professor of English at Bucknell University, explored what humans spend so much time doing — waiting.
His new book, The Patient, is a natural extension of the theme of waiting, delving into the experience of suffering or illness.
Co-edited by Kimberly Myers, an associate professor of humanities at Pennsylvania State University, the Bucknell University Press book is a collection of 10 essays — including two by Bucknell colleagues — that explore aspects of the patients' and caregivers' experiences.
"The first half consists of personal accounts of people who know what it is to be a patient, either because they are patients themselves or because they have family members who are patients," said Schweizer. "These essays depict the suffering and endurance of people and families who are greatly taxed by but also greatly enriched by the experience of people in their families who have become patients."
The second half of the book explores how the terms patient and patienthood can be applied to different discourses such as the social sciences, history and literature. In one essay, contributor John Rickard, also a professor of English at Bucknell, "talks about Ireland as a patient, the feminization of Ireland as a nation and the depiction of Ireland as a patient," said Schweizer. Amy McCready, associate professor of political science, is the other Bucknell contributor.
The book is a small selection of essays from a 2006 international symposium by the same name hosted by Bucknell and jointly funded by Geisinger Medical Center.
"What we aimed to do in this book, first of all, is to emphasize, highlight and pay attention to the fact that there are patients, and that we all very likely have been or will become patients ourselves," Schweizer said. "So we are asking, 'How do we understand the patient's experience? How can we become more patient, more caring in our contacts with patients? What is it like to be a patient? What do we mean when we use that designation?'
"We wanted to complicate the term patient or patienthood so that we don't think of patients solely as victims, passive, feminized or infantilized — so that we would not think of patients as merely suffering, a burden to caregivers, or at the mercy of institutions. In other words, to make (the patient) more complex, that's ultimately to humanize the patient."
People tend to deal with patients differently than they do with the healthy, Schweizer said. Notice, he added, how people talk louder when addressing a patient. "They raise their voices when they talk to a patient because they assume somehow that their powers of attention or comprehension are impaired as well. 'HOW ARE WE DOING TODAY? ARE WE DOING OKAY?'"
As Myers notes in the book's introduction, all of us will become patients one day. And, Schweizer added, it would prove beneficial if we were not cast into one mold when we become patients. "We will be as different and as complex and as individual as we are now when we are not patients," he said.
Schweizer said one pertinent element that has emerged from his work on waiting is his observation that we are not very good at waiting; perhaps we should learn to wait better, to become more patient.
"We must learn to be patient especially with patients," he said. "The best thing we can give a patient is our time and our presence. Even if certain things have to be done, if bedpans have to be emptied or sheets changed, these activities derive their qualities entirely from the presence of the person doing it — how the person is present to the patient during these activities.
"That sounds rather abstract, perhaps, because it seems so intangible, but I think it has to do with how the patient feels that time is given while he is being care-taken and whether this gift of time is given freely and generously."
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