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A Tribute to An American Heroine by Jeffrey H. Boyd, M.D., M.Div., M.P.H.

© 2001-2013 Invisible Disabilities Association. Foreward to But You LOOK Good! Order Here.

Sometimes a person’s character is not evident until thrown into the furnace of affliction. Like John Wayne’s tough determination wasn’t evident in a movie until he was out-gunned ten to one. That is part of what makes Sherri Connell’s story so compelling. Against all odds she emerges as a determined woman of real grit, capable of taking on the meanest that life has to throw at her, and still surfacing with heroic courage after getting hit by a Tsunami. She has always been a person who, as far as I can tell from reading her story, if she died on Tuesday, would probably have shown up to work on Wednesday saying, “I’m not going to let some minor problems like death and a coffin keep me down.”

Yet, despite her cussed determination to cling onto the vestiges of “normal life” after a tidal wave of devastation to every system of her body, still her so-called “friends” thought she must be a sissy, giving-in to feelings of being tired, and using illness as an excuse to retreat. Some “friends”!

Sherri has helped me put into words something that has been knocking around inside my skull as a half-baked idea, namely that some parts of the popular American culture are intensely hostile to those who suffer from chronic illnesses, especially invisible disabilities. That, of course, is not what we Americans think about ourselves. After all, we have given disabled people preferential parking spaces and passed the Americans-with-Disabilities-Act. But think about it. If you turn on TV or open most popular magazines, you are confronted with healthy and beautiful bodies of models under the age of thirty. That is what life is supposed to be about, or so we are told. We are all supposed to enjoy our bodies, exercise aerobically, be sexy, and drive glamorous new cars, and remain under the age of thirty without showing any effects of age, gravity or disease. Or at least that is the “hype.”

How does someone with an invisible disability fit into that idealized picture of the good life? She doesn’t. Therefore, I suspect that Sherri’s so-called friends were confronted with a choice: either remain loyal to Sherri, or remain loyal to the false picture we find on TV and in the mass media. Many people choose to embrace the American ideal of a sexy-healthy-body-under-the-age-of-thirty, and therefore ditch Sherri. At least that is what I suspect motivated her so-called friends to hold her in contempt and abandon her in her hour of need.

We tend to take health, family, food, and other blessings as being our birthright. The thought does not come easily that these are blessings that we don’t deserve, that God is free to either give or withhold. Fact is, God gives us funerals and disabled people to help remind us that this life is not heaven, despite what we see on TV ads. The purpose of someone like Sherri, vis-à-vis her friends, is as a warning from God that we all live at God’s beck and call, are totally dependent upon Him, and the purpose of our life is to glorify Him. The blessings of this life are only a brief and dilute taste of heaven. If Sherri’s friends had realized that the purpose of life is to glorify God rather than to enjoy their “birthright” health, then they would have recognized that Sherri was fulfilling that purpose more successfully than they were. If Sherri’s friends had understood these points, they would have become more humble.

In a classic article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on November 13, 1996, Catherine Hoffman and Dorothy Rice made an appraisal of the extent and cost of chronic illness in the United States. About 46% of Americans suffer with one chronic condition or another, most of them employed, most of them under the age of 65. The cost is staggering, and is the leading cause of the ongoing inflation in the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs. The fundamental issue is that contemporary medicine is often able to delay death but not restore health, so that the more “breakthroughs of modern medicine” we have, the more sick people we have. I say this without sarcasm and without cynicism. A century ago someone like Sherri Connell would have died years ago. She does not think it is bad to be alive, even though she remains crushed by afflictions. God’s blessings are still delicious, even when there are fewer of them available to Sherri today than when she was a healthy teenager.

Here’s another example of how the “miraculous breakthroughs of modern medicine” increase the number of sick people. In the old days if you had a severe head injury, you died of brain swelling. Starting a couple of decades ago, doctors learned how to prevent brain swelling, so that acute brain damage did not necessarily lead to death. But as a result of that “breakthrough of medicine” there is a large and rapidly growing number of Americans with Traumatic Brain Injury, most of whom are unable to return to the kind of work and lifestyle they had before, and many of whom are permanently disabled. Thus the more successful medicine is, the more sick
people we have among us.

I am beginning to suspect that popular American culture is built upon the pipe-dream that disease has been conquered by physicians, or will soon be conquered as soon as we figure out what all that DNA says. I’ve been a physician now for a quarter century, and let me assure you that is not how it looks from down here in the trenches. If this were a football game the score would be DISEASE 85 versus DOCTORS 15. Our score of 15 is much higher than it was a century ago. But we are far from winning the game. We lack the power to cure someone like Sherri, alas.

My point is that Sherri Connell’s heroic effort to alert her “friends” to the realities of invisible disabilities is a message that Americans desperately need to hear. Those who believe the TV “hype” about how the meaning of life requires that you must first possess a healthy and sexy young body, will be humbled by God as they grow older. The elderly know what it means to live with illness and disability, which sometimes is less severe, and sometimes more, but is always apparent even in the loss of elasticity and thickness from the skin, the growing wrinkles and tendency to droop with the impact of gravity over many decades.

Copyright 2001-2013 Invisible Disabilities Association. Foreward to But You LOOK Good! Order Here.