Recently, Laura Stout, a Health Assistant I work with at Accolade shared a story with me that has been passed down in her family. I share it here exactly as she shared it with me, with her permission of course.
“I have an interesting story about my Great Grandmother…
She was working on the Family farm and had a serious farming accident during harvest. A corn stalk punctured her lower leg and continued through her leg until it reached her knee. She was 26 years old and had two kids under the age of five years old and a dairy farm to sustain.This wound was enormous and became infected which considering what they use as fertilizer, is no surprise.
The shocking part of the story is that due to the “blood poisoning” caused by the infection in her injury, the small town doctor gave my great grandmother two options for treatment, “You can have your entire leg amputated, or you can die”.
Well, this seems like an obvious course of treatment in the pre-antibiotic era, but what was not considered is that for a Mennonite woman in rural PA working a dairy farm and raising a young family, the loss of her entire leg was a worse option than death itself. So, she said… give me death….
Well, my Great Grandfather was not as on board with this as an option, so he took my Great Grandmother from her “death bed,” to an Indian Medicine man who made a wash using unknown ingredients (in the story it was some type of ash water) and instructed her to rinse her leg day and night changing its wrap continuously.
Long story short… My Grandmother was her fourth child. My Grandmother talks about reaching up her Mother’s leg and feeling the scar and hearing the story as a warning during the harvest every year.”
This is a wonderful parable that illustrates a number of universal truths that we in health care see every day.
- · Every family has their own stories, their own “mythology” that helps define the family’s values, beliefs and strengths. Those stories help pass on from generation to generation core aspects of that family’s approach to health, illness, adversity and life itself. Whenever you work in a helping field, the ability to have a person share their family story is extremely valuable in enhancing the professional’s ability to help that person and their family.
- Based on a person’s values, death may not be the most negative outcome. In this story, the thought of being an added burden for the family that needed her was worse than death for Laura’s great-grandmother. When health professionals help others, they have to understand that there are certain things that may be more important than health such as caring for a family and being true to one’s beliefs and values.
- · Everyone can be totally open, and be totally correct and yet be incomplete in their “truth”. Thus the country doctor was absolutely correct from his training and perspective that the only choices were amputation or death. The medicine man’s knowledge of what were certainly antibacterial substances was unknown to the doctor and therefore the doctor’s knowledge was incomplete. Even in today’s advanced medical world, an expert in a narrow area of medicine can easily miss options that are available outside of his or her area of expertise.
- Lastly the power of a narrative, a story used to communicate, should be strongly valued. We are truly fortunate to have narratives before us daily and we should always strive to capture them, learn from them and use them to teach others.