Considering health

I’ve spent the past few days in Cincinnati, where I’m huddling with the staff and board of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. We’re wrapping up our strategic planning for next year.

Flying out of Reagan National in Washington on Sunday, this “Health is everything” ad greeted me at my gate.

Health is everything. This is one of those things we say, because it’s a thing we say. It’s fine enough to say (in the context the ad is) that maintaining health is a sensible thing to do. But it’s also a phrase that contains implications.

We’re all born different. Chance and circumstance plays with each of our lives. A question I’ve been wrestling with: is a disabled person healthy? It’s a question I never considered prior to joining the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network.

“Health” is a surprisingly tough thing to define. Some attempts:

“A condition of optimal well-being.”

“Soundness, especially of body or mind; freedom from disease or abnormality.”

“The overall condition of an organism at a given time.”

Is someone with an abnormality unhealthy? Is someone with a disability whose “overall condition” is positive healthy? Is someone with a traumatic brain injury from a stroke or car accident or collapse, who has been rehabilitated to whatever extent possible, in a state of “optimal well-being”?

There’s a fascinating Wikipedia cited assertion on health that goes a long way in answering: “In humans it is the ability of individuals or communities to adapt and self-manage when facing physical, mental or social challenges.”

This makes sense to me: health as individual adaptation to one’s circumstances. Like anything, health is particular. It can’t be “everything,” because there’s no universal standard of wholeness.

If health is everything for a good life, it naturally follows that the subjective abstraction we call “quality of life,” can determine when a less good life is worth little or nothing.

At my departure gate, just past this ad, was a middle aged man I later saw in business class with his arm in a sling. At the adjacent gate, an elderly man in a wheelchair. Down the road, a brain damaged man who needs aggressive rehabilitation. Down the hospital corridor a bit further, someone finding out they’ve got a degenerative condition.

None of us can escape our particular circumstances, and so we owe each other more than empty platitudes about health or quality of life, especially when those slogans turn out to shape law and medicine.

We owe each other a recognition of a innate dignity, undimmed by circumstance, as creatures living on a spectrum of frailty and brokenness, each deserving the chance to adapt to the challenges that come our way.