Do the expectations and thoughts of the people around a patient influence the patient’s recovery from illness or injury?
Marking today’s 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, it seems a good time to consider the tragic death of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in 1863.
Reading the account of General Jackson’s death, it’s hard not to see a man expectant of his own recovery, but surrounded by those with the opposite belief.
Days after being shot at the Battle of Chancellorsville and having his left arm amputated, Jackson is reported to have been cheerful, expectant of a full recovery and impatient to return to command.
Yet he began to suffer from a fever, which alarmed his physicians and his wife, and fearful pronouncements of his coming death soon began. Jackson continually refuted doctor’s dire predictions that his condition was fatal and worked to reassure his wife declaring, “I do not believe that I shall die at this time, I am persuaded the Almighty has yet a work for me to perform.”
When he was reported as improving and he again expressed confidence that he would recover, he was told with great confidence from those around him that he would not survive.
Finally, after three days, he yielded to their arguments and accepted their solid convictions that he would die. At 1:30 pm on May 10th, Jackson’s doctor told him that he had less than two hours to live. General Jackson passed away at 3:15 pm.
Source material for this post comes from a book called, “The Destructive War,” by author Charles Royster, and from an article titled, “The Last Illness and Death of General Thomas Jonathan (Stonewall) Jackson,” by Beverly C. Smith, M.D. This article first appeared in the Summer 1975 issue of the VMI Alumni Review. Dr. Smith was, in 1975, a practicing physician who became interested in analyzing the medical care given to Jackson.
The cause of General Jackson’s death remains a medical mystery. Dr. Smith notes, “This is a fascinating medical problem. There was no autopsy and the true answers will never be known.”
The bedside manner provided to General Jackson fits with what Dr. Larry Dossey describes as “Era 1” medicine developed during the time of the Civil War. Era 1 medicine can be termed “mechanical medicine” and it views health as totally physical in nature.
In the mid-1900s, a new phase called “Era 2” saw physicians beginning to recognize that emotions, feelings and thoughts can influence the body’s functions–a radical departure from the Era 1 approach.
Dr. Dossey views the still-developing “Era 3” view of medicine as the most exciting. This takes Era 2 much further in recognizing how thought and consciousness are central to the nature of health.
This is similar to a conclusion reached by Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, soon after the Civil War, and is pivotal to the effective healing work of many Christian Scientists. In 1866, like General Jackson, Eddy was also once attended by individuals who did not expect her to survive a severe injury. Her study of the Bible led to a profound understanding of the spiritual nature of man and the teachings and practice of Christ Jesus. Her subsequent recovery surprised all those around her.
How important is the doctor’s thought according to Mrs. Eddy? She writes, “A patient’s belief is more or less moulded and formed by his doctor’s belief in the case, even though the doctor says nothing to support his theory. His thoughts and his patient’s commingle, and the stronger thoughts rule the weaker.” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, pg. 198)
Further proof of this growing trend towards “Era 3” medicine can be found in an article titled, “‘The health alerts that make you ill: Negative thoughts ‘can induce sickness.”” The article states, “Dr Clifton Meador, of Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville in the U.S, said fear can turn into self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘Bad news promotes bad physiology. I think that you can persuade people that they’re going to die and have it happen. I don’t think there is anything mystical about it. We’re uncomfortable with the idea that words or symbolic actions can cause death because it changes our biomolecular model of the world.’”
The understanding of the mental atmosphere surrounding a patient can also be traced back to the works of Jesus Christ. For instance, in the Biblical book of Mark, chapter 5, when Jesus was called to heal the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, he put everyone out of the room except the parents and his three disciples. Could it be that he knew that the frightened thought of others was not conducive to a healing atmosphere?
I’m grateful that there is a growing tendency away from “Era 1” thinking and towards the recognition that thought and consciousness are central to ensuring effective healthcare.