Medicine men

By JAMES PARKER  |  November 28, 2008

At the same time, Wright was pulling volunteer shifts at the Edinburg Center in Lexington, servicing a somewhat more rugged clientele. "It's a day program for people with a whole range of mental-illness problems, ranging from depression to PTSD to schizophrenia. I worked there a couple of times a week for about four years."

What did he, "General Franz P.Wright, supreme commander/of paranoid recluses, grayhaired/children" ("Registration of Names"), get out of it? "I got a lot out of it. Mainly, I guess, the discovery that this division between the sick and the well — it's nonexistent. Part of the thing with these illnesses is that they isolate you so much, and you come to feel that you're the victim of some special doom and everyone else is fine and you're in this little private hell by yourself. This kind of work awakened me to the fact that suffering is the norm in everyone's life, and that was very healing for me. I've been where some of these people are. The world that they inhabit, permanently some of them, is very real to me. I intermittently go back into it myself — it's never very far away."

Later, back at his Waltham apartment, our audience on the rock concluded, we relax. Wright stands in the middle of the room in crooked late-afternoon light, squinting at his iPod. "This is gonna fuck you up," he promises, pushing buttons. We're having a musical binge: Hendrix, Lennon's "Yer Blues," and now — ah! here it is — John Coltrane, "Naima," live in Paris, 1965. The lyrical theme, and then the slow, tearing, bubbling, accelerating departure into pure sound . . . Wright sits down and closes his eyes, soaking it in. He looks like he's praying.

The physician
In his 1997 book of essays, The Poetry of Healing (Norton), Rafael Campo recounts a botched attempt to insert a catheter into the vein of a dehydrated young AIDS patient in a San Francisco hospital.

Before I knew what had happened, he was sitting bolt upright, screaming at the top of his lungs and flailing his arms out in font of him. . . . When the same needle pierced my own skin, my first thought was to deny the literal connection between us, one that emotionally I had been for so long incapable of accepting but that was suddenly as lasting as metal, as pointed as agony.

If you want to talk about communion, the breaching of barriers and the unified mystical body, here it is: a needlestick wound from a dying, infected patient.

When I ask Campo about this incident, at his practice in the Shapiro Clinical Center on Longwood Avenue, he smiles. "Well, that was one of those literal moments of mixing," he says, "of connecting with another person that rose, really, to the level of the religious. I was joined with that particular patient in a moment of terror but also a moment of utter hope, because for the first time in my life I had a glimmer of understanding of another person's suffering."

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