As a new doctoral student in Marriage and Family Therapy with a concentration on Medical Family Therapy, I have been expanding my understanding of the social context of illness. I have read about the ways in which Western society has placed an important concern on the medicalization of an illness, emphasizes the biological aspects of the physical malady rather than considering the psychosocial-spiritual impacts of illness on the individual and family, and emphasizes the medical provider as the "expert.”
As I continue to learn from the literature about how social context of health impacts health and collaborative care overall, I am also better understanding my personal experiences and how they relate to these ideas.
From the time that I had the ability to comprehend what being "sick” entailed, I came up with a few observations. I often associated "sickness” with medications of sorts, visits to doctors, and feelings of fatigue and irritability. These were the things that I experienced growing up because my father was diabetic and had chronic cardiovascular disease. Ironically, looking at my father’s appearance, he was the epitome of health. A tall and slender man who enjoyed playing tennis and going for daily runs. To my father’s misfortune, the cause of his poor health was based on genetics. My paternal grandparents had both died from sudden heart attacks, and at the time of their death, their social context was a key contributing factor to their inability to gain access to the appropriate medical attention they needed. Living in Iran, a foreign country where the socioeconomic gap between the rich and poor is a problem that still exists today, it was apparent that the wealthy had more privilege in issues related to healthcare access and advanced technologies. Inevitably, these and other social factors prevented my grandparents and father from gaining knowledge on preventative measures when dealing with chronic illness.
Fast forward to three years ago when my father was admitted to the hospital by his primary care physician who after running numerous tests concluded that congestive heart failure (CHF) was the diagnosis. Since my father had a history of chronic cardiovascular illness and diabetes, the doctor informed my family and me that it would be best for him to remain in the hospital overnight. That evening, the cardiologist came in and poked and prodded my father. After asking a few questions, he concluded that the diagnosis of CHF was correct. As he was writing down notes he informed my family that he would be adding a new medication to my father’s existing medication regimen.
I remember the nurse coming into the room late one night and simply handing my father a cup of water and a small plastic container with about ten different pills. This routine continued for another three days, however the morning of the fourth day was different. As I entered my father’s hospital room I was greeted by a primary physician, a cardiologist, and a nephrologist. They all looked concerned and began their interaction with my family by saying that my father may not be released as early as my family had hoped for. With a panicked look on his face and a trembling in his voice, the primary care physician said that according to recent lab results, my father’s kidneys appeared to not be functioning. A new diagnosis was blurted out; they said it was end-stage renal failure and an immediate procedure had to be done in order to insert a fistula so my father could begin hemodialysis. I remember having a million questions running through my mind, but I could not verbalize a single one. As I muttered out a quiet "Why?” the cardiologist said that the only answer he has is that one of the medications that my father was given to treat the CHF had an adverse effect on the kidneys. Since he was diabetic, he already had under functioning kidneys, but the medication had worsened the existing functioning capabilities of his organs. As the three physicians left the room all I kept thinking and questioning in my mind was how a doctor could not know what medication was contraindicated with another.
As I fast forward to one year after that incident, I have experienced my father not only go through the physical disadvantages that result from chronic illness, but psychological difficulties in dealing with the social context of his illness. The way society perceives him as "ill,” the way our family views him, his role in our family system shifting from breadwinner to someone who is unable to work, and a plethora of other setbacks that had contextual factors that were socially based.
Looking back on this experience as a doctoral student who is interested in medical family therapy, I can clearly see the need for collaborative care between physicians and all those involved with the patients. I have learned firsthand how important it is those nurses, physical therapists, family therapists, and anyone else who interacts with a patient work together in order to provide the patient with the best overall care. My hope is that one day, the social context of illness can be transformed in such a way that all medical professionals work collaboratively with other medical caregivers, patients, and family members in order to best treat the whole patient- mind, body, and soul.