Sunday, May 29

Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence by Dr. Gavin Francis Review: The Art of Getting Better | Health, mind and body books.

GRAMLearning better is rarely something that happens all the time. Whether we have been seriously ill or injured, we all have to experience the complexities of recovery as a result. Aftermath is an old agricultural term meaning “a second crop” that grows unexpectedly in the space left by the main crop and can involve difficult decisions about what to do with these remnants.

Recovery can feel like a second harvest, something that is appreciated because we have survived, but a new unpredictable and strange phase in our healing. The medical professionals who have guided us through the harvest of treatment are usually gone, replaced by different types of responders to changes in our health. We find that our questions about what is happening to us are answered more slowly, with what seems like a lower priority than before.

It turns out that more of the work that is needed is up to us and likely to be slow. Often the field we’ve been left alone in is huge and the ground is churned up and the few green shoots that grow there are far apart and hardly seem worth picking.

Francis’s book explains recovery as a discrete therapeutic entity that deserves our full attention and why we should never stop trying to get better, even when it seems like we can’t get much worse. Recovery is a difficult but essential part of what makes us human. In his signature case studies, he shows how the time it takes to recover is, time and time again, the biggest challenge for the patient and caregiver.

GPs may be allotted a certain number of minutes (or Zoom calls) with each of their recovering patients in which they may prescribe pain medication, chat with the physical therapist, walk in nature or participate in a group activity . While focused on the individual, every time a doctor has a conversation with a patient about how long it takes to recover, he also speaks to all of us, asking us to reset our expectations of medicine that have become unrealistic. Not everything can be fixed quickly or easily, and sometimes never completely.

To show this, Francis recalls the rich history of slow-paced recovery and the places and people that enabled it. Not all of it was effective (milk cures that confined patients to bed for weeks did a lot of harm and no good), but the underlying recognition of taking our time to rebuild ourselves is a profound insight into human regenerative capacities. We used to know this, but somewhere in the heat of changing medical technologies, we forgot and came to expect the instant and effortlessly.

Where Francis’s book is particularly strong is in outlining the different forms of recovery that humans must undertake. Look at the recovery from the long Covid, from deep stress and unhappiness, from misfortune. Most powerful of all, it describes how recovery is possible even if the biological causes of disease cannot be corrected. Recovery in the context of a terminal illness has to do with resolving and achieving a kind of balance in the remaining time that a human being with limited life has left. Francis draws on both the writings of Oliver Sacks and his own patient list to recount the experiences of what it is like to die and, in truly remarkable fashion, reclaim new forms of humanity, if only for a short time.

This is a short and informative book for those who are involved in their own recovery and those who support them as they do so. Contains fascinating and helpful advice to supplement the standard medical resources available to patients (the absolute therapeutic importance of nature, achieving moments of grace, pets, and why bathrobes are generally more helpful than towels). For all of us who have made our way through complicated lives that have not yet yielded the harvests we hoped for, Francis offers hope and a rare and precious form of quiet consolation.

Emily Mayhew is a historian in residence in the bioengineering department at Imperial College London.

Recovery: the lost art of convalescence by Dr Gavin Francis is published by Profile (£4.99). to support the guardian Y Observer order your copy at Shipping charges may apply

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