Am I (a) patient?

patient
(adj)
1. able to wait without becoming annoyed or anxious.
(noun)
1. a person receiving or registered to receive medical treatment.
2. Linguistics the semantic role of a noun phrase denoting something that is affected or acted upon by the action of a verb.

ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French, from Latin patient- ‘suffering,’ from the verb pati. (from the Oxford American Dictionary)

Sharon’s prompt for this month’s PFAM (Patients for a Moment) blog carnival at “After Gadget” asks if I refer to myself as a “patient,” and why or why not. To be honest, I rarely refer to myself as a patient unless I am describing myself as being under a particular medical practitioner’s care, as in “I’m a patient of Dr. Smith,” or when I call myself a “Patient Advocate,” which has to do with my advocating on behalf of other people like me who are tangled up in the healthcare system.

In re-reading the definition above, I’m struck by the difference between French and English when it comes to labeling individuals who receive medical care. In French, as in English, the term patient (or patiente) is used when a doctor describes an ill person in his or her care (a sick person acted upon by a doctor). But an ill person or a hospitalized person is a malade. While we can hear the echo of the English word “malady” here, malade doesn’t have the same combined wallop of the noun “patient,” connoting suffering and passivity.

Yes, I suffer, as all living things must eventually, but I am rarely resigned and uncomplaining in the face of that suffering, particularly when there are things I can do or change to help alleviate it. Even if the change is as small as altering my perception of an event or experience.

I’m not sure, however, that I would have used the term “patient” much to describe myself anyway, even if I didn’t know the etymology. I’ve been doing academic work in gender, sexuality, and disability studies for too long not to have internalized the argument against using someone’s difference as their primary description (e.g. “He’s gay,” “She’s disabled/handicapped,” etc). The lessons of identity politics have trained me to be sensitive to these kinds of reductive statements, instead using phrases like “He identifies as gay,” or “She’s a person with a disability.”

While I’m sure this kind of verbal gymnastics seems either basic or unnecessarily complicated to some people, it prevents us from reducing an individual into his or her most prominent—or visible—identity category. So in essence, I’ve been trained intellectually not to think of myself as a patient, but rather to think of myself as a person with a chronic illness, just like I’m a person with a gender and a nationality, and a whole bunch of other identity categories with which I identify to varying degrees. When someone asks, I generally say “I have an autoimmune disease” or “I have a disabling chronic illness.” Not “I suffer from…” or “I am a patient with…” or “I am disabled by…” but “I have.” (And sometimes, as a bit of a pep talk, I remind myself that I may have lupus/RA, but they don’t have me.)

Perhaps it’s easier with an “invisible” illness and disability, but I rarely feel as though there’s any danger that acquaintances or strangers will reduce me to my illness (or if they do, once I tell them, then I have simply saved myself a great deal of heartbreak in the long term). I find that I struggle more often with trying to get my close friends and family to understand how having a chronic illness affects me, and to find a balance where they can be flexible and receptive to my needs, but not treat me as though I were impossibly fragile all of a sudden. Because if having a chronic illness has taught me anything, it’s that I’m far stronger than I ever thought I was.

Am I kind? Yes. Am I tenacious? Yes. Am I (a) patient? Only when I must be.

4 comments

  • aftergadget

    Wonderful! I love this post. I studied French, and I’m a logophile, and I didn’t know about the origins of the word. I really enjoyed your deconstruction and your playfulness in attacking the prompt.

  • picnicwithants

    Your writing is wonderful.
    With each entry from this carnival I read I think..yes, I get that. Or perhaps I should have said something about that…

    with your entry I identified the most with how you ” struggle more often with trying to get my close friends and family to understand how having a chronic illness affects me.”
    This is something I find myself not being very patient about.

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