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A visit from the healing muse: ‘Etiquette for the Very Ill’

Deirdre Neilen, PhDDeirdre Neilen, PhD shares a selection from Upstate’s literary journal, ‘The Healing Muse‘ every Sunday on HealthLink on Air. She edits the annual publication featuring fiction, poetry, essays and visual art focused on themes of medicine, illness, disability and healing.

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Etiquette for the Very Ill, by Johanna Shapiro

Let’s say you get cancer
or have a heart attack
or get hit by a bus
You may think you need a doctor
or a hospital
But what you really need
is a lesson in etiquette
Otherwise you will end up
making a very bad impression
on friends, family,
doctors, nurses,
and complete strangers
so that
while struggling to live
or struggling to die
you will also be universally perceived
as completely lacking
in decorum

That’s right

By getting so sick
you’ve just committed
a serious social faux pas
That’s French for
a very bad mistake
from which you will probably
never recover
(Generally speaking,
as a very sick person,
you want to avoid mordant humor
But what’s a joke or two
among friends?)

Believe me,
when you are a very sick person
you need etiquette

Lesson #1
It is a good idea
when you are desperately ill
to know a little French
French is a classy language
and as a very ill person,
it will give you a certain
je ne sais quoi
(That’s French too
Look it up)
If you do not already
know French
you will have plenty of time
to learn it
in doctors’ waiting rooms

Lesson #2
When you become
a very ill person
it is most important
that you avoid self-pity
This is a very disagreeable emotion
to others
Also anger, despair, misery (especially
the wallowing kind) are bad
Bitter is very bad
When you show these emotions
you make healthy people
feel guilty and uncomfortable
Healthy people can be unkind
They have plenty of energy

Lesson #3
As you might imagine,
smiling is never out of place
If you aren’t very ill yet
try smiling as you stick a
needle (an ordinary sewing needle is fine)
under your fingernail
You can add “thank you” later

If you allow yourself to become
a very ill person who behaves badly
then it will end very badly for you
because everyone will despise you
for having atrocious manners
On the other hand,
it will probably end very badly for you


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