Featured image: Cephalophore (saint carrying her own severed head), Jia Sung
The Death of Robin Hood (painting), N.C.Wyeth, a brilliant American illustrator who preferred painting to drawing, 1917. “Leaning heavily against Little John’s sobbing breast, Robin Hood flies his last arrow out through the window, far away into the deep green of the trees and asks to be buried where it falls.” Robin Hood’s death was first recorded as a ballad in the 1400s in A Gest (tale/adventure) of Robyn Hode. By the 1800s, when Thomas Percy included the story in Reliques of Ancient Poetry, only fragments of the Gest remained. Undaunted, Percy rewrote the damaged- and inferred the missing portions of the prelude to the folk hero’s death: Robin Hood asks to be bled—a mainstay of ancient and medieval medical treatment—by his prioress cousin. The prioress lets out too much blood. Robin knows he is going die and prepares his mind for it. His second-in-command, Little John, wants to kill the prioress in revenge, but Robin forbids it. Little John takes his beloved leader to a place of safety, where the arrow episode takes place, after which the legendary advocate of the poor dies.
As Ehrenreich might put it, the proximate cause of Robin Hood’s death was an unnecessary and dangerous medical procedure, the removal of approximately 10 cups of blood, which was nevertheless practiced from the time of the Egyptians (3,000 B.C.E) into the twentieth century—as late as 1942, a famous medical textbook considered bloodletting appropriate treatment for pneumonia. Before we bewail the ignorant dark ages, let’s remember that a savage form of breast-cancer surgery, the Halsted radical mastectomy, was state of the art during the nineteen seventies and eighties—it removed chest muscle and lymph nodes as well as breast tissue and left women permanently disabled, as pointed out by Barbara Ehrenreich in “Welcome to Cancer World” (2001). Halsted himself suggested, “After all, disability, ever so great, is a matter of very little importance as compared with the life of the patient.”
H.R. Giger, Female Torso, 1994
Ehrenreich‘s caustic attack in Natural Causes on medical culture’s unstoppable treatments regardless of quality of life—as well as the medical- and the “wellness” industry’s byproduct of making us believe we can live forever—do not stem from an ignorance of science or the denial of the undoubted benefits of the right medical treatment at the right time: she has a BS in chemistry (with a minor in physics) as well as a PhD in cell biology. Moreover, in her personal life she was all too familiar with the ferocity of medical approaches: she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 59 (2002) and underwent the surgery and therapies that led to her being declared cancer-free within a year. This experience, which she found extremely arduous both physically and emotionally, was in great part responsible for her foreswearing of “a medicalized life.” Afterwards she avoided standard medical checkups and ignored the rituals and products proscribed by the wellness industry, except for lots of time spent in meditation/writing, following a mediterranean-style diet, and practicing yoga and other forms of exercise. She lived a happy, contented life for 6 years after her “old enough to die” declaration. She died at age 81 after a stroke.
I myself am currently experiencing a disturbing bodily failure that, as in its most recent 3 related physical predecessors, triggered in me the question: what would Barbara Ehrenreich do? On the last Sunday of January, I became aware that something serious had gone wrong in my bottom parts. As a tough nut who’d experienced an intestinal blockage that required emergency surgery and two separate rectal prolapses, I thought, after a quick glance, that a third one was upon me. However, after a closer ogling and some googling, I self-diagnosed a uterine prolapse, or collapse of the pelvic floor muscles and ligaments to the point that they no longer support the uterus, so that it slips down into and/or protrudes out of the vagina.
Louise Bourgeois, (1911-2010), In and Out, 1995. From the collection Structures of Existence: The Cells. Note to Louise Bourgeois, in whatever Grand Beyond you find yourself: given that you were known for your wit in life and in art and as an iconoclast of societal taboos, I hope you regard my use of your sculpture in this context as an homage. I hope you understand why I laughed hysteracally (hystera being Greek for “uterus”) when I came upon In and Out while thinking about the bottom issues I discuss in this post. Your emotionally aggressive yet witty pink organic form next to its nest, its cage, from which it had fallen, escaped, describes exactly what a uterine prolapse feels like…
I discovered that nearly half of all US women between ages 50 and 79 get diagnosed with uterine prolapse. So why has not a single one of my family, friends, acquaintances, or woman’s magazines ever told me about it? Every now and then I’ve heard about someone who had to have a hysterectomy, but a prolapse was never mentioned as a possible reason. Accordingly, even before I saw a doctor, I decided this post had to be written: just as I am not ashamed to talk about the material injury to my neurons that cause my dementia, I am not ashamed to talk about bodily failures that also generally seem to be regarded as shameful. How can one be ashamed of your astonishing body that, whether it’s sound or sick, is a testament to the awesomeness of the universe: my wondrous uterus has twice given me the gift of motherhood! I must, therefore, summon my best mental efforts to express a last pietà to toward her, in the original sense of the Latin “pietas,” as “the duty children owe their parents, and, by association, the duty humans owe their gods.”
Clemente Susini, Anatomica Venus (1780-85). Though this highly realistic life-size wax model might not strike those of us with contemporary aesthetic norms as the epitome of female beauty, by Enlightenment values Venerini (“Little Venus,” a pet name) was the perfect embodiment of womanly allure: a placid, idealised nude. Her seven layers of take-apart organs, which includes a tiny fetus curled in her uterus, did not detract from her loveliness but rather enhanced it: “human anatomy was understood as a reflection of the world and the pinnacle of divine knowledge, and…to know the human body was to know the mind of God”(Joanna Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus). Venerini was sculpted/constructed to teach anatomy to doctors as well as educate the general public. She has eyes of Venetian glass rimmed with real human eye-lashes, a headful of real human hair. A string of pearls adorns her neck. Her face glows with an ecstatic expression. In her time, “a look of ecstasy was sacred, not erotic. The same expression would be found in many religious paintings and sculptures—it evokes mystery, not sex.” (For example, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa)
Before Peter and I saw the uregynocolgist, we had discovered that two treatment options were available for uterine prolapse. First,a non-surgical management that consists of using a pessary (a removable disk-shaped device) to push the uterus (more-or-less) back in place. The use of pessaries dates back as early as the 5th century BCE (Hippocrates) when hot oil stimulants, astringent-soaked plugs, and pomegranates were used to treat prolapse. However, after studying the fine print of this non-surgical solution, I was newly attracted to Ehrenreich’s conviction that 70-something is old enough “not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom” in the shape of medical devices that require self-maintenance as well as regular doctor check-ups. The second option was, of course, the mainstay of so much contemporary medical solutions: surgery. It seems more in line with my life philosophy to undergo the risks of surgery, including the damage that anesthesia does to any brain, than take on one more daily activity to manage in addition to my dementia and gastro-intestinal reflux disease. Besides, it seems kind to retire her to an eternal rest rather than trying to nudge her back into a position from which she has opted out by herself.
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, Fragility, 2015. Hadzi-Vasileva is a site-specific installation artist, which means that the art is designed with a particular place in mind, installed in that space, and (with some exceptions) cannot be moved or changed. Hadzi-Vasileva designed Fragility for a converted Regency church in Brighton, now the Fabrica gallery. Like much of her art, Fragility consists of organic material from animals, left-overs from the meat trade. For this work—via a chemical process akin to embalming—she transformed a membrane that holds the internal organs of some farm animals together into thin, pliable light-filtering banners. These hang from the ceiling in neatly staggered drapes, catching light across their veiny surfaces and mimicking, according to the artist, the light described by survivors of near-death experiences. She believes that her recycling of abattoir waste—destined to be disposed of—restores dignity to a biological realm so disrespected by our culture.
Those of you who regularly read my blogs will know all about the energy-sapping maintenance—by Peter as well as me—of my dementia. In addition, dealing with the chronic constipation (one of the symptoms/causes of my reflux disease) takes most of my mornings as well as causing stress and anxiety: I have to keep to a very disciplined diet and eating schedule, swallow soluble fibre up to 4 times a day, take a morning tablet that promises (but often does not deliver) a bowel movement within an hour or two. While waiting, I have to stay upright (to rope in gravity) and pace to and fro, constantly focusing on the expected bowel contractions so as to go to the toilet at exactly the right time. (Something like following the obstetrician’s instructions to “push” or “don’t push” when in labor.) If I want to sleep until 7am, I cannot make an appointment for earlier than 11 am. If I have to be out earlier (usually for doctor appointments), I have to get up 4 hours ahead of time to start my digestive system procedure. That means up at 5 am to make a 9 am appointment. Which works havoc with my executive function, i.e., my ability to focus for the rest of the day.
Despite my grumping about ever being up early, I eagerly got up at 5:30 am for a 9:30 am urogynecologist appointment for my latest pelvic floor failure, an appointment that miraculously happened within a week of my self-diagnosis. My doctor confirmed my selfdiagnosis uterine prolapse; however, with her medical education versus my high school biology!, she found two additional issues: a bladder– and a rectal prolapse; She concurred with my and Peter’s decision that I go for surgery: a hysterectomy, followed by a hitching up of my bladder, vaginal wall, and rectum by stitching them back onto the sacrum, or shield-shaped bone just above one’s tailbone, and which connects the spine to the pelvis. Accordingly, I have a surgery date around the spring equinox.
First, healthy female organs of the pelvic floor are stand-uppish and perky; second, prolapsed organs sag down and may protrude through their natural orifices.
It of course strikes me as ironic that I, who have eleven years ago declared myself ready to die before my dementia reaches a stage where my life—by my criteria—is no longer meaningful, have since my dementia diagnosis availed myself of sa great many surgical fixes of the fixable parts of my body. I am very grateful that I have medical insurance, which gives me access to these treatments, without which my quality of life might already have dwindled to a point of not being worthwhile: that is, when I spend so much time maintaining my brain and the rest of my body that I have time for nothing and nobody else. I am grateful that I have a home with Peter in it; and friends and family who help me figure out these dilemmas and support me with physical and psychological care. I am grateful that I have you, my readers, who read my musings about the issues of my daily life and who give me a purpose for working them out on paper and not just in my head. My blog writing is one of my greatest pleasures in this time of my life.
Louise Bourgeois, Roof Song, 1946-8. On a magnificent red chimney, the artist paints herself in a comic image, grinning widely, to celebrate a recently completed sculpture that is pictured on the right: the tower in black with touches of red. Her hair resembles wings that might just carry her over the moon.