Updated: Jul 7, 2020
My six-year old daughter Addy has been diligently learning to read this school year. Now that we are at the end and she has completed all of her first grade readers, her assignment is to select a book, any book, from her own bookshelf at home to read. The assignment is ingenious, because it is forcing her to realize that because she now can read, she really can pick out any book on her bookshelf and read the book or story with ease. The hope is that over the summer, this new-found confidence will stoke her curiosity, so that she continues selecting a new book to read every day.
It was just this week that she was reading to me the story of Corduroy. Corduroy was an ordinary teddy bear dressed in green corduroy overalls. At the beginning of the story, no one is noticing this plain old teddy bear among the larger, prettier, and more eye-catching stuffed animals for sale on a long display at the busy department store. It didn’t take long for this story of an ignored stuffed bear to take on a meaning of its own in my mind.
I could empathize with Corduroy. I WAS Corduroy. For all of my seven year battle to overcome a heart arrhythmia just so I could return to everyday life, I had been treated like Corduroy. Ignored. Compared to the other patients around me and considered to be “not that bad.” Like it’s a contest. Have the worst, most emergent symptoms, and maybe YOU will be the lucky one selected to actually be given a treatment today. I had never before realized that electrophysiologists had only one patient each day to which they could offer treatment. But given my experience, apparently obtaining this single daily golden ticket was necessary to obtain treatment from any physician in any field, whether in the ER, primary care, cardiology, infectious diseases, hematology, or cardiothoracic surgery. I vividly recall the ending to one consult for an ablation with the doctor literally telling me that compared to his last patient, my arrhythmia just didn’t deserve to be treated. I responded, “Well, I hadn’t realized it was a competition,” as I walked out.
It reminds me too of one of my final ER visits eight weeks prior to the completion pericardiectomy I received for constrictive pericarditis. Dr. Westfall, a local ER doc who knew me well by now, had out of sheer habit while staring at my EKG indicating new heart ischemia (possible heart attack) made the statement within the first minute of entering the room that “I have more significant cases to treat tonight, so…”
To which I reflexively replied, “Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m not dying. That’s fine.”
Upon hearing my words, he suddenly straightened up and corrected himself. “You- your case- IS one of my significant ones tonight. You have been everywhere and had some major heart surgery. You ARE one of the more complex cases I’m caring for tonight.”
Unconvinced, I responded, “Well, I’m not dying tonight, so…”
It was so easy to default to being Corduroy after seven years’ worth of physicians saying, your heart is normal, you don’t have an arrhythmia, you haven’t had a stroke, there’s nothing wrong with you, you don’t have an infection, your sternum is just fine, your hardware isn’t falling out, don’t know why you’re having chest pain requiring ER visits every day for a week- your heart is normal, etc. At some point, even though you know none of those statements are true, your subconscious picks up on it, and believes it. I felt Corduroy’s unacknowledged existence intensely.
Next in the story, Corduroy is finally noticed by a little girl. She is really intrigued by this uninspiring bear, especially because he is missing a button on one side of the overall straps. She shows Corduroy to her mom, who dismisses the idea of bringing the bear home, because she has already spent too much money at the end of their shopping day. Then the mom frowns on the girl’s choice of stuffed animal, pointing out, “Plus, he is missing a button and has a broken strap on his overalls.”
With this picture, my mind goes elsewhere in my story. To a place not many people talk about. How people with illness, especially chronic health issues, are perceived by the rest of the world- friends, family, and loved ones. It is a well-known fact that male partners of females who face chronic illness tend to divorce at a far greater frequency than women who are care-giving for their male partners. Is it simply because women are natural at care-giving, more patient, more devoted? Possibly. But friends and family- why do they disappear when the going gets tough? When you could really use their listening and support the most.
Tim Keller wrote the book, “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering,” and in it he explains this phenomenon as old as the story of Job, the first documented book about human suffering on Earth. There is a finite time limit on empathy and compassion for most. So if you are not better in a matter of days, weeks, or months, for the healthy person, your time is up. The empathy well is empty. Not that it should be that way. And thankfully there are those of us with great amounts of empathy and compassion in our well that, while fatigued from time to time, does not run dry.
There’s another piece to the explanation as well, that in our post-modern, American thinking, the only way to be happy in life is to be healthy, working, and making alot of money. Anything that could interfere with that idea of success is a real threat to our very purpose in life. How scary is it for a friend or family member to watch a very motivated, driven female who had achieved the American dream in opening her own business and athletic enough to run marathons, to suddenly become so significantly hampered by a heart condition brought on by such an ordinary thing as pregnancy? Your very existence demonstrates the fragility of life, success, and our livelihoods. It is far easier to deny that such a thing could ever happen to us, than to overcome that great fear and reach out in empathy to a loved one in need. Even acknowledging that such a thing could happen without the person bringing it on his or her self is so threatening, that many times the patient is actually blamed for what has happened. It must be something they did that brought this on. It was their diet, not getting enough sleep, an unhealthy lifestyle, not exercising enough, etc. It is all a defense mechanism by loved ones to re-assure themselves that this illness or problem could never happen to them, to the loss of the person who is actually suffering on a daily basis, alone.
Furthermore, the fact that happiness is not determined by circumstances is drowned out by the post-modern self-centeredness of the typical American life. It takes a very special someone to recognize, acknowledge, reach out, and offer assistance to someone with an acute or chronic health need, just like that little girl did to Corduroy.
That night, alone in the department store, for the very first time, Corduroy struggles with the new-to-him concept that he is flawed. He is missing a button. He hadn’t known he was missing a button until the little girl’s mom had brought it to his attention. How in the world had he not simply looked down and seen that he was missing a button? The story doesn’t delve into this, but the only explanation would be that Corduroy had a self-worth that extended far beyond outward appearance. He is so content and happy with his life as is, that he hasn’t even noticed his flaw. This reminds me of the teachings of Dr. James Dobson that I grew up listening to and reading as an adolescent. I still remember it. In fact, several years ago I wrote this sentence in marker at the top of my middle school daughter’s dry erase board, and it’s still there today. “The root of inferiority is comparison to others.” That’s it. Corduroy had never thought to compare himself to all of the other stuffed animals who were more popular and getting all the attention of shoppers. He believed he was worthy of love, just the way he was. That’s why he was content and happy simply being Corduroy.
The next day, the little girl returns with the money from her piggy bank to purchase Corduroy and take him home. Once Corduroy is safe in her bedroom, the little girl decides to make Corduroy more comfortable by sewing a button to fasten the loose strap of his overalls. She fixed Corduroy and made him whole. But the end of the story doesn’t say that having both buttons made Corduroy happy, but rather that someone had shown care and attention to him had healed his inferiority from the knowledge that he was broken. That’s all it takes. For friends and family, neighbors and loved ones wondering how to help someone who is struggling with health issues, this is what we need. Knowing that someone cares, a meal, childcare, a ride to a doctor’s visit, flowers to boost our mood, listening to our story- each of these and all of these simply indicate to a patient that someone cares. Someone loves them. And that’s all we need to know.
Jill Murphy is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and founder of MotionWorks Physical Therapy and an advocate for patient-centered care. A Christian wife and mother of three, she survived a seven year journey through the broken American healthcare system in search for an answer to a heart arrhythmia that appeared during pregnancy. A stroke, open heart surgery for constrictive pericarditis, and several other surgeries later, Jill is telling her story of unfailing resilience in her upcoming book, Doctor Heal Thyself.
Having grown up on a dairy farm 40 minutes from Lambeau Field, Jill is an avid Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin Badgers fan, and is up for any outdoor activity with her husband Tim and three children, including walking, biking, throwing the football around, hiking in scenic locales, gardening, and coaching a middle school basketball game or two.