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For the Health of Humanity

This was originally written in February 2016 - revisiting after the unfolding in Christchurch and sharing the sentiments now as then, with enormous gratitude for the expression of unity from the citizens and leaders of New Zealand.

Reviewing reports of the recent events in Kalamazoo – in my home state, a terrific city where I spent two summers and where my sister has lived nearly her entire adult life, growing her family and knitting herself deeply into the community – I was surprised that it did not feel any different to me than similar events that have happened elsewhere in our country. Initially, I was concerned that I had simply become numb to such an occurrence – so frequent; announcement of death by shooting has become a headline as common as the winner of last night’s basketball game. But as I sat with the news, and wondered yet again if it was time to jump ship for lands with notably less gun crime, it dawned on me that my outrage was not lessened by regularity of occurrence nor was it heightened by familiarity of location because it was maximized long ago, and has been maintained ever since, by the oneness of humanity.

There have certainly been moments that felt closer to home in context and location over the years – I was myself a senior in high school when Columbine took place – it was difficult to rectify that I was able to commemorate such an important stage in my own life with joy and celebration as the memory for many was stained by the loss of thirteen innocent lives. My oldest was a kindergartener at the time of Sandy Hook – there was a shift in the beauty and excitement of early education for my own son with the awareness that it was being replaced for these parents by the unimaginable bereavement of twenty children and six of their dedicated stewards. Soon after we arrived in Oregon, the Umpqua Community College shooting occurred. Making my new home in a university town only 100 miles away, I was bewildered – I grew up in one of the most violent cities in the nation and spent the past decade in another. Living now in a quaint tourist town, tucked in the mountainside of the Pacific Northwest where no one even locks their door, I was now in residence when the state experienced the deadliest mass shooting in its modern history, as eight were killed at this institution of higher learning. Nowhere is safe; patterns are unpredictable. The relief-ridden gratitude for the safety of ones own family is followed immediately by the horror-stricken realization that it is only by chance that this is so. We are missing the big picture if we think that each of these lives lost does not impact the constant destruction of the soul of society while undermining the quality and threatening the quantity of our own lives.

I grapple with this reality – of the violence ever-present with the fervor of debate so heated, the possibility of a resolution through legislation highly unlikely and capacity for change seemingly beyond my grasp. My human response is paralytic fear. My parental response is enraged sadness. Neither of these, thus far, has resulted in productive movement toward solution. But when I take a step back and look at the panoramic view of death by gun violence as the public health crisis that it is, the physician in me begins to find some clarity and loosen inertia’s grip.

As an osteopathic physician, I have the privilege of engaging with anatomy to effect change in physiology. Osteopathic manipulative treatment is intended to remove obstruction from the patient’s inherent path to health. When treating patients, symptoms are acknowledged and addressed, diseases identified and managed but the search for root cause is the ultimate goal of evaluation and correction the true purpose of treatment. As I consider the ongoing, escalating gun violence in this country, I cannot help but filter it through this lens of analysis that has underscored my professional life.

Theoretical solutions abound – in the news, in proposed legislation, in the comments of social media posts:

  • More guns so good guys could stop the bad guy.

  • Improve gun control laws to prevent guns in the wrong hands.

  • Eliminate guns entirely to prevent future occurrence.

  • Increase access to mental health to address those at high risk for considering such heinous acts.

I can wrap my head around most of these (with the exception of more guns…but that is a whole different story) but none of these options seems to get to the bottom of the greater issue, to truly dig to the root of the problem. They are addressing symptoms and that’s not all bad – there are certainly benefits to successfully developing and implementing reasonable gun control. They are identifying diseases – mental health care is an underserved aspect of our medical system and certainly could use bolstering – from health professional recruitment and training to public awareness for identification of warning signs, removal of the stigma for seeking treatment and access to care. Osteopathically, however, it feels like they are missing something. The health of our society has been compromised. There are significant obstructions.

  • If we consider humanity as a diverse unit of body, mind and spirit, the triune has been disrupted when one strikes out in violence to destroy the lives of others.

  • If we deem humanity capable of self-regulation, self-healing and health maintenance, this intrinsic capacity is currently being suppressed.

  • If we accept that structure and function of society are reciprocally interrelated, the current state of dysfunction would indicate that the structure is rickety at best.

  • If rational treatment is based on understanding of these principles, we must consider what has occurred to create such a disruption of societal health and how to efficiently apply resuscitative techniques.

As I consider these, my differential diagnosis is dominated by the concept of connection.

The basic application of osteopathic manipulative treatment addresses restrictions in the musculoskeletal system to allow the health to come through. Appropriately introduced early in training mechanically, students are instructed in identifying restriction and “restoring the normal,” often feeling as though you were fixing the problem. As I progressed in my training, it began to feel more like I was moderating a conversation within the body, encouraging the voice of health to come through. With the passage of time and plethora of patients, I now bear witness to the symphony of the patient’s being and provide a cue when needed to navigate through a difficult section.   As I have evolved through my own perception of the treatment experience, a constant has remained – at presentation, there is a sense of disconnect – whether structurally, mentally and/or emotionally – and successful treatment is achieved when connection is restored.

We can work at removing the restriction and restoring the normal, but guns are not going away any time soon and the movement toward this has more inertia than will be overcome in a practical time frame. We can moderate the conversation and encourage the health to come through, but mental health care alone is not enough. But when we bear witness to the symphony of society, seeing all that is good and standing at the ready to provide a cue through the difficult passages, we start to see the whole and encourage it to become so. If we can recognize the disconnect and instead of turning away, stand strong and reach out, we shine a light on the path to health for humanity.

If the functional goal is a safe and peaceful society where we can abide with our family without fear for our lives, the structure must support this by encouraging a community where we consider others as one. I had the opportunity to spend the weekend with my Kalamazoo sister, sharing time and stories, including her recounting the evening of the tragic events, during which she was unknowingly sharing the road with the six who lost their lives. As I had sat with many of these words over the past week, I was encouraged to pursue them as I caught glimpse of one simple word artfully displayed permanently on her forearm:


I am because we are.

We are body, mind and spirit – let us see and reflect them in each other.

We are capable of self-healing – let us encourage the innate capacity of the whole.

Structure and function are interrelated – let us reinforce the framework of society to optimize the purpose of humanity.

Rational treatment is based on the understanding of these – let us be willing to see the health and when it is interrupted, provide a cue toward connection.

The task is enormous, but the potential equally so – and if we are all reaching out, seeing and seeking the health, the effects can be truly powerful.

May the symphony of humanity’s health be conducted by connection, allowing the melody to ring clear in the key of ubuntu.

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