Ending the War: Transforming Medicine’s Military Mindset

“9/11–9/12”. Oil on canvas, 40″ × 30″, © 2001 by Marc Camporeale. To purchase a limited issue reproduction of this painting or to view other works by this artist, visit http://www.artbycamporeale.com or call 212-505-8515.

“The fun of medicine was lost when medicine became a war machine,” insisted Gladys McGarey, MD, at a conference sponsored by the American Holistic Medical Association.

War has been the dominant metaphor in medical thinking for better than 50 years. The very language of allopathic medicine reflects combat consciousness. There are officially declared “wars” on cancer and heart disease; “barrages of radiation” to eradicate “invasive” carcinomas; disease surveillance strategies and “first-line interventions;” natural killer cells and “target” organs. There are heart attacks and asthma attacks to be controlled with “magic bullets” from the “therapeutic armamentarium.”

The medical “chiefs of staff” create ever-fatter field manuals and codebooks in the form of PDRs, DSMs, and standardized guidelines, and build ever-costlier fortresses in the form of research institutions and tertiary care centers. And in an office in Washington, DC, sits the Surgeon General, marshaling the nation’s public health resources against the scourges of the day.

But morale in the ranks of American medicine is at an all-time low. Everywhere, one sees shell-shocked medics in extreme battle fatigue. And despite the intensive chemical warfare and technological weaponry, the main “enemies”—cancer, heart disease, diabetes, HIV, and other chronic diseases—show no signs of relenting.

Dr. McGarey, a pioneer in the holistic medicine movement, who is currently medical director of the Scottsdale Holistic Medical Group, Scottsdale, AZ, believes it is time for a new metaphor.

“We need to realize what we as physicians are really doing: we are working with people who have diseases, not diseases that have people.” This is more than cute semantics: it implies a fundamental shift in how doctors relate to their patients. “We need to bring the individual back into medicine.”

According to Dr. McGarey, it begins with self-care. “As physicians, we are horrible about this.” The typical medical lifestyle—extreme hours in pathogen-rich, aesthetically poor indoor environments, lousy food, intense stress, social isolation, and in some cases, substance abuse—are a recipe for chronic disease. And an unhealthy physician cannot really help his or her ill patients.

“Pay careful attention to the lesson taught every day by flight attendants: Before you put the oxygen mask on the child next to you, you must first put on your own. You can’t do anything for anybody else unless you take care of yourself.”

For those who resonate with Biblical teaching, Dr. McGarey reminded that the Scripture says to, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” This means one must care for oneself with the same love and attention one would give to one’s patients, while at the same time treating one’s patient’s as one would wish to be treated.

Unfortunately, much of the physician-patient relationship these days is ruled by fear, cost concerns, and desire for control. Consider something as simple as the breast self-examination.

“I think we’ve done a great disservice by teaching women to feel for lumps. We’re essentially telling women they’ve got two time bombs hanging on the front of them. Perhaps the breasts are saying, ‘Well, she’s looking for lumps, let’s give her some!’ And so it goes in so many cases,” said Dr. McGarey.

Not that she is against self-examination in principle. It is the fear-based attitude that warrants re-consideration. Rather than teaching patients to fear the ‘evil’ within their breasts, one could instead teach them to approach their breasts with a friendly, ‘Hello girls, how ya doing?’ The exam would be no less effective, but the experience would be a whole lot healthier.

Dr. McGarey believes attitudes and expectations of both physician and patient are profound influences on health. “The physical state is the result of projections of the mind’s ‘slide’ onto the ‘screen’ of the body. Allopathic medicine has focused almost exclusively on the screen.

A holistic approach embraces all three: the screen of the body, the psycho-emotional slides, and most importantly, the inherent vitality or life energy, which is the light-source, projecting the psyche’s images into the physical world. “If you unplug the projector, it doesn’t matter what kind of slides you have or how clean the screen is,” said Dr. McGarey. One need not look too hard to find many people who feel extremely “unplugged” from life’s source.

She believes this loss of connection is tied to the social fragmentation and loss of community that characterizes many peoples’ lives. It is apparent in the clinic, where healing has been reduced to a business transaction or a mechanical procedure based not on human contact and empathy but “objective” protocol.

Here, too, Dr. McGarey revealed that the very words we use can show where it has all gone wrong and how to return to a healthier state. “Take the word ‘Illness’ and replace the ‘I’ with ‘We,’ and what have you got? Wellness.”

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