The 'won't recover' issue

In April, I blogged off and on about the "amazing supercrip" stories the media was dishing out about Dan Hendricks, trainer of Derby hopeful Brother Derek.

But those stories have now found their match in the ones pouring forth now on Derby winner Barbaro's leg fracture that cost him the Preakness.

There's a lesson here somewhere, about the need for us humans to produce this kind of narrative about injury and recovery. It seems it's bred in the bone.

I ran into my first one in yesterday's Courier-Journal sports section. By sports columnist Jerry Brewer, its headline -- Biggest fight of Barbaro's life just beginning -- got me to thinking about how much "athlete injured, recovering" stories were alike. Whether the athlete was human or horse didn't much seem to matter. Brewer's story was so much like the tear-jerker stories I've read over the years (and criticized) that I had to sit there and read it all.

There are hundreds of these kinds of stories being done now -- check out the google news hits on 'Barbaro'. Here's a headline: "Barbaro's Tough Road to Recovery." That's from the San Francisco Chronicle. Here's another: "A Tribute to a Champion." That's from the Boston Herald.

Some more: "Barbaro's Plight Stirs Deep Emotions" (San Jose Mercury News).

But here's the story to read:

ABC News: Barbaro's Injury Provokes Deep Empathy, but Why? And, if you're registered with the New York Times (it's free), take a look at Jane Schwartz's essay in yesterday's sports section -- We Care. But Why Do We Care So Much?. "Why do people care so much about the fate of an animal to which they have no personal connection?" she asks. Three people posed answers in today's NYT Letters Dept.

I'm not sure that these "why do we care" articles really get at all of the reason stories like this continue. Yes, partly it's about a horse that's a champion, but it's more about the interest -- fascination, I guess -- with recovery against the odds. Or what we think are the odds.

It's certainly a deep, atavistic emotion.

Not that there's anything wrong with it, as far as it goes.It's just that it often -- almost always -- goes too far.

The problem for people who live as disabled has always been that society has never seemed to know when to shut off the waterworks and get down to the business of letting someone who won't recover get about in society nonetheless.

That "won't recover" issue is the one that bothers folks. It's the one that's most often used to justify assisting in a "suicide." Turning off a breathing tube. Withdrawing food and water.

Or, even when not taken to such an extreme, the "won't recover" worry brings us language in articles of the "trapped in a lifeless body" or "future is behind him" variety. You know the ones. The ones that fixate on the moment of disablement and never seem to examine the access and discrimination problems individuals who "won't recover" continue to face.

That seems to be what society has so much trouble with. Any ideas as to why that is?

May 23, 2006 | Email this story


Comments (newest comments at bottom)

They shoot horses, don't they? ; )

It is a hell of a driving force, that fascination with recovery (be it of horse or human), and it seems to follow a predictable timeline: Life was perfect for Johnny, until there was a horrible accident that shattered his dreams. Now it’s going to take strength and determination for him to get his life back, yada yada yada. (And then there’s the more ominous “Susie -- human or horse -- will never return to normal, so we’d best put her out of her misery . . .”)

Perhaps the fixation (and the folly) lies in that fairytale introduction – life was perfect, until ____. A lie, to be sure. We tend to forget that a radical change involving our own bodies and brains (spiritual revelations excluded) really doesn’t immediately and drastically change the “quality” of our daily machinations and our place in society.

Consider advertising for teeth whitening systems, weight loss programs, Viagra, etc. They follow the timeline in reverse: I suffered from the awful condition of ____ and it was hurting me and my family and friends. But then I tried ____ and now life is grand! The spokespeople in these ads seem to be having gobs of fun now that they’ve “fixed” what was ailing them, and I find myself envying them. Why? My teeth are pretty white, I’m rather tiny, and I’m quite content in the erection department, as it were. I have no use for those products in the first place – so how come I’m not having that much fun? Somehow I get little twinges of jealousy watching that stuff – and believe that the people in the ads now have lives that are monumentally better, whereas mine seems humdrum, even though the people I’m watching are no more attractive/active than I am, even after they’ve used the wonderful products.

Perhaps it is comforting to us to have a big snap-bang “problem” on which to blame the vague dissatisfaction and general malaise that plagues all of us from time to time. Obviously, no one has the “perfect” life, and it’s in our nature to be wistful, to think “If only . . .”, even if it’s for no other reason but to entertain ourselves. Does focusing on whatever condition the public perceives is cramping a person’s style really make life afterward (or before, before the illness/accident/whatever) that much brighter by sheer comparison? And how long does it take for that illusion to wear off? Maybe quite some time, if we’re able maintain the illusion with the manipulative use of feature articles . . .

Posted by: Evonne Acevedo on May 23, 2006 03:23 PM

People are very concerned about Barbero because he was a very promising and lovable horse whose career and life may come to an end. An injury to a horse is not the same as an injury to human. Because of the structure of their bodies horses, unlike humans, CANNOT survive with a permanent impairment to their leg. That is why people are so concerned about Barbero and want to see a full recovery - it's a real matter of life or death.
As far as I am concerned you cannot always put disabled animals in the same discussion about disabled humans.

I felt very sad when I saw Barbero break his leg on the track because I knew it could mean sudden death for him. The issue of disability and recovery for humans is just simply a different issue.

Posted by: Catherine on May 23, 2006 03:25 PM

In my opinion the real issue that results in compassion for an animal that suffers a severe injury is caused primarily by the "communication problem." The horse, in this case, cannot tell us what happened, where it hurts, or how much pain he has. Nor can we explain to him what the x-ray tells us, his dx, or his prognosis. We cannot effectively gain his cooperation in his own care, and therefore a tremendous sense of responsibility and pathos results.

Posted by: Kathy Podgers on May 23, 2006 07:55 PM

As if, everything is perfect...until the person discovers (aaahhhrrggh) an "imperfection" bad teeth, more weight than an individual likes, etc...The instant the "imperfection" is discovered the person/animal in question must become an "overcomer," to seem "correct" to the reader/viewer..

Posted by: imfunnytoo on May 23, 2006 08:08 PM

In Mary's defense re: animal vs. human, I realize that there's a big difference (Catherine, you're absolutely correct) between compassion for a racehorse and unfair expectations for a person. And we all know Mary does too -- she was simply taking the opportunity to draw an analogy based on a story that's getting an extraordinary amount of attention.

Posted by: Evonne again on May 25, 2006 02:31 PM

I have 3 horses myself so I know how hard it is to fix a leg. Keep up the good work Barbaro, he is in my prayers

Posted by: CAITLYN MALICKI on May 30, 2006 09:28 PM

My thoughts took a similar philosophical direction. We love stories of "potential" - but when there is no potential for a comeback, our interest turns to disinterest or even disdain. Perhaps this is why we are enamoured of dependent, bald, wrinkled and incontinent babies, but often turn away from elderly persons manifesting the same traits.

Thank you for reminding us of the shadow side of the "Comeback Kid" archetype.

Posted by: Deborah on August 11, 2006 10:59 AM

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