A doctor working with stroke patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Dr. Ian Corbin, wrote about one of his patients in an op ed piece in last Sunday’s New York Times. After weeks in recovery his first words were “ I want to speak in public again.” A neurologist had just asked him his goals. The patient spoke slowly, with effort but he was clear. Many stroke patients say similar things but then consign themselves to a solitary life, even though they are capable of talking. It’s a puzzling pattern doctors observe. Sadly many of these people don’t re-gain their speech too well and don’t full recover, though they have every physical indication that they are capable of more rehabilitation. Why do so many stroke patients choose this lonely path, which does not serve them well? Because they are ashamed of their labored language. Doctors call the problem post-stroke isolation. Dr. Corbin says that isolation is the worst thing for them but they choose it rather than being seen to be disabled.
Corbin’s work with stroke patients has led him to work on a book on human vulnerability. He says, “Too often in America we are ashamed of being weak, vulnerable or dependent…We isolate ourselves rather than show our weakness. … In public we bluster and pose and project strength we don’t actually possess.” In fact, many immigrants who arrive on our shores are puzzled by coming to a land of artificial cheerfulness.
Like those famous Christmas brag letters resplendent with pictures of happy children, successful parents, harmonious greetings and abundant lives, Americans are prone to lead with good news in a way that shuts out real life.
So stroke patients feel it is their fault if they fail to get back 100%, when modest recovery from a serious stroke is quite an accomplishment. Corbin tells a thoughtful story about Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist. She once was asked to identify the earliest sign of civilization. People expected her to point to ancient examples of primitive people using tools, or cave art on caves, seeds in places where people were transitioning from hunting to planting.
But Mead said something that was surprising. Margaret Mead believes the first sign of civilization is found in the bone fragments of someone who lived 15,000 years ago and broke a leg. Archeologists found a femur, a thigh bone that was broken and healed. Why was this a sign of civilization? Because it takes 6 weeks to heal your femur.
That kind of injury would make you incapable of hunting or defending yourself. You would need other people to feed you and carry you, help you and protect you from danger. Animals don’t do that for each other, not for six weeks. Pre-human species did not do that either.
Compassion and cooperation are examples of our highest achievement as a species. Weakness or vulnerability makes us inter-dependent. In those moments when we need each other we reach to our highest potential. We find in weakness the source of our greatest strength. I’m hoping that this health crisis will become another opportunity to remember that truth. There is nothing to be ashamed of in weakness.