Karen Hitchcock's Editorial Notes from The Lifted Brow #24 – The Medicine Issue

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Cover art by Lachlan Conn.

On Sunday we launched The Lifted Brow #24 — The Medicine Issue at the Melbourne Writers Festival. (There was nudity and there are photos.)

We are blessed to have had author and doctor Karen Hitchcock as guest editor for this print edition. Here are her editorial notes introducing it.

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Of medicine—the science and the practice and the stuff—everyone has an opinion. We have all been to the doctor’s; we all have a body and a mind. Medicine is both despised and revered. When your body hurts or fails you and you place yourself in someone else’s hands, how can you trust them, when can you relax? After all, almost everything might be a symptom of multiple sclerosis, and you have some of those symptoms from the list, so you go tell the doctor and the doctor taps your tendons and watches your limbs gently jerk; she shines a light into the back of your eye, her face so close to yours you can smell garlic on her breath, then she asks you to touch her finger, your nose, her finger, your nose, wriggles her hands in the peripheries of your vision and then tells you not to worry. Don’t worry? Your heart thumps, your pupils dilate: is she lying, is she mad, what have these strange little dances to do with MS?

In medicine, the lifted brow is an important sign: it tells us many things because of its unusual innervation. If you have a stroke that paralyses one side of your body, your ability to lift your brow will be preserved, as each side of the brow receives innervation and power from both hemispheres of the brain. Wipe out half your brain and you’ll be left with full brow-lifting ability. Such is the importance of the lifted brow. To wipe out one side of the brow, forget the brain, what you need is a direct attack on cranial nerve VII. Hit that nerve—with say, botox or herpes—and it will be as if a power line has been felled; despite nerve VII being supplied by two stations (left and right brain) it’s light’s out for one side of your brow. In short, the lifted brow is stroke proof; it reigns supreme in the face of out-and-out higher-centre destruction. Its power to express is protected and preserved from all but the dirtiest of attacks.

Medicine. I want to strangle it; I want to defend it. At times I think the entire medical system has been twisted into some ugly thing that merely serves the needs of Big Pharma, Big Corp and Big Government. Other times I prescribe a medicine that works, and my sick patient gets well and goes home and I think: look, it’s not all bad. I think: sure, there’s a lot of bullshit drugs out there but you’ll most likely live ’til you’re ninety; when you need an operation they’ll put you to sleep before they lop off the bit that’s trying to kill you; if you get an infection you most likely won’t die; if you can’t breathe for a few days there’s a machine that will do it for you; if you can’t breathe ever again they’ll give you new lungs or opiates so you don’t feel like you’re drowning. If you are in a car crash on a highway in the middle of nowhere a state rescue service will cut you out of the bent metal and chopper you to the heli-pad on some lit-up big hospital’s roof, and the trauma surgeons, the radiologists, the emergency physicians and nurses will be awake, alert and waiting for you to come through the door on your trolley. They will patch you up and scan you, rush you to theatre so they can knit your bones, drain the blood from your skull, resect your ruptured spleen. Then they’ll wrap you up tight in cotton wool and gauze bandages and tuck you into bed. Medicine is not simply an oppressive state apparatus, which has as its core aim the control of the populace (as I have heard claimed now and then). It is not as powerful as that. Medicine cannot fix poverty, loneliness, abuse, nor the ravages of high-fructose corn syrup. Most of the time and for most people, medicine is an interaction between one imperfect individual called Doctor and another called Patient. Illness is something much larger.

In this issue of The Lifted Brow we have stories of grief and horror: the ravages of anorexia; being paid a pittance by a pharmaceutical company to ingest untested, unnamed drugs which may or may not kill you; a psychiatric illness that affects the machines around you; operations; slow death. Susan Sontag famously wrote that everyone born holds dual citizenship: to the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. When you cross the border you take many people with you. The stories herein show us the way sickness reverberates from the body it inhabits, shockwaves spreading wide. They describe bodily chaos and meltdown; the attempt to make ourselves well or cope with inexorable decline. Having a doctor for a parent fails to protect Mike Day from illness. Alice Williams watches her father slowly deteriorate as he waits for a donor organ. Doctor Lisa Mitchell can’t fix her grandfather’s heart and Peter Goldsworthy diagnoses Jesus as a FLK. David Kelly watches a shaman in Peru treat his dying friend with a floating egg. Hannie Rayson sits in a Spanish hospital, terrified at the unexplained appearance of two gloved men: Christ, they’re going to give me an internal examination. Both of them. As Fiona Wright tells us: Illness is a foreign country. We do things differently here.

—Karen Hitchcock

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Karen Hitchcock is an author (Little White Slips) and medical doctor. She writes a regular column about medicine for The Monthly.