Reflection on Emotional Distancing and its Effects in the Medical Field and the Literature

Throughout the semester, we have come to learn about a variety of injustices within our medical system. It is easy to appreciate the severity of these transgressions, but it is not as simple to understand what enabled these events to occur. Our course epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”—Dionne Brand, was brought to my attention during a collaborative blog post in this class. In the post, the term “these people” was used. This was not written with bad intentions, but when the historical use of this term to alienate and mistreat others was brought to our attention, I could not help but begin to notice instances in which the characters in the novels we read also used this label of “the other” to alienate people and allow some sort of injustice to occur. This act of labeling and separating others extends beyond the text and is one of the many factors that has allowed the medical injustices we have explored in this class to occur. Through noticing and reflecting upon this factor of separation, I was able to begin to make connections to how this could be avoided in my own future practice in order to provide the best patient care possible.

In one of the first works we read this semester, Home, we first began to encounter the distinct labeling of people as “the other” in order to allow horrifying violence to occur. Through the novel, we are exposed to the narratives of several characters, one of the main ones being Frank Money. Frank is a veteran of the Korean war who suffers constant reminders of his troubled past. During his time in the Korea, Frank lost his friend, Mike. Upon the death of his friend, Frank begins to note that “with Mike gone, he was brave, whatever that meant. (…) The copper smell of blood no longer sickened him; it gave him appetite” (Home 98). From this point on, Frank gains an insatiable bloodlust and stops feeling remorse for his actions; his narrative also begins to employ racial slurs towards the enemy. This act of Frank separating himself from his actions and labeling the enemy not as people, but just another thing to kill, is what allows Frank to get through his time on the battlefield and minimize the guilt he feels. As a reader I understood the reasons that Frank would try to separate himself, as he was fighting in war; however, the extent of the separation (not to mention his use of derogatory names) and the fact that he began to enjoy and anticipate tremendous acts of violence was something that I could not fathom. Frank’s mentality of separation to minimize consequences to his own well-being foreshadows the similar situations of Mark Spitz in the novel, Zone One.

In Zone One, we are immersed in post-apocalyptic New York City during a government funded endeavor to reclaim the city from infected people. Through the experiences of the protagonist, Mark Spitz, we notice that many of Mark’s comrades employ techniques in order to increase the degree of separation between them and those they kill. Their purpose in doing this is to lessen the emotional cost of their difficult duty of killing and disposing of countless people. Just as Frank employed derogatory terms to separate himself from the humans he killed in Korea, the characters of Zone One employ the term “skels” and “stragglers” to describe infected people. Mark’s friends, Gary and Kaitlyn, envision the enemy as people who they perceived as threats in the pre-apocalyptic world in order kill with chilling efficiency. In one instance Mark notes that: “If the beings they destroyed were their own creations, and not the degraded remnants of the people described on the things’ driver’s licenses, so be it. We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them” (Zone One 266).  One again, considering the difficult nature of their jobs I can understand why the characters felt the need to separate themselves emotionally in the novel. However, it must be noted that this coping mechanism is one of the main factors that enables such a large scale of violence to occur. I found it interesting that in Zone One, Mark distinctly identities to all of those who he encounters and kills, and notes they are on the same level as him, compared to the very distinct attempts at separation that other characters made. I found this ironic, as Mark is consistently referenced through the text as being a stunningly efficient killer, even though he connects so deeply with his victims. However, Mark still finds flaws in those he kills (and within himself) that justify his actions, noting that: “They were human beings, after all, and full of things that needed to be put down” (Zone One 267).

The technique of labeling people in order to achieve a degree of separation and enable unjust actions is not only encountered in battlefields and fictional realms, but also in the medical field. The act of labeling one as a separate entity is one of the many factors that have enabled tremendous injustices to occur in the past. In Medical Apartheid, chapter 3 begins to establish some of the many instances in which people in positions of power attempted to justify the mistreatment of blacks by means of emphasizing the differences between blacks and whites. One popular example is that of Ota Benga, a man who was forced into an exhibit because of his small stature (Medical Apartheid 76-77). Benga was not alone in his situation, as many people were solicited into “quasi-scientific displays” with the aim of emphasizing visual differences between people (Medical Apartheid 79). In the text, it is emphasized that there was not only an obsession with justifying scientific racism, but also with the concept of “whiteness” in general– and what makes someone “white”. The rise of more people of mixed descent from interracial relationships was thought to have “posed an implicit threat to civilization” to those in power (Medical Apartheid 95). Throughout the book, examples of people using this perceived “threat” and the visual differences between people as means of separating themselves from others and enabling horrifying acts of experimentation and abuse in the medical field—similarly in both scale and nature to the acts of violence we read about in the fictional works in this class.

From experimentation to non-consensual surgeries, forced sterilization, and grave robbing in order to provide bodies for dissection in labs, Medical Apartheid leaves no ambiguity of the abuses people of color were subjected to. These injustices occurred for many unfair reasons, one of which being the categorization of people as “different” based on visual characteristics and the pseudoscientific endeavors mentioned in the text. Today, I am sure that injustices still occur, but certainly (and hopefully) to a lesser degree than the gory experimental surgeries mentioned in our class readings. However, in the medical field, at times I can imagine that caregivers may separate themselves from others in order cope with the difficult aspects of their jobs. It must be emphasized that this may not be done with bad intentions, but with the goal of making difficult jobs and situations more manageable.

I currently volunteer as an EMT and since I am relatively new to the field, I have not yet experienced many of the traumatic situations that my coworkers have. They, as well as other medical professionals, such as doctors, went into medicine in order to help others—and that remains the number one priority. We all entered careers in medicine aware of the nature of the situations we would encounter. Recognizing that we will encounter disturbing scenes does not lessen the gravity of traumatic situations when they come our way. I am sincerely aware that encountering many traumatic events can begin to desensitize people, not because they want to be, but because it is human nature to separate yourself from a disturbing situation in order to remain focused and continue working. This is something we have encountered in many of our course readings– some of which are mentioned above. I currently work as a volunteer, and do not see the frequency of trying situations as I know I will in my future; however, in my future of practicing medicine I will make a conscious effort to stay completely grounded in stressful situations in order to provide the best possible care. I take great pride in getting to know and connecting with each of my patients, no matter how short our encounter may be. My goal in doing this is to both to make them as comfortable as possible and to gain better insight into how they can be helped. I look forward to continuing this practice in my future, and always remaining conscious of this goal when difficult situations are encountered, so that I can consistently connect with, understand, and help the people who most need it.

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