Your very good health

My main hesitation with book reviews, particularly of books I have fallen in love with, is that all I want to say is:

Yes! Absolutely! Fantastic. I concur.

This barrage of agreement may point to my tendency to choose books that align with my worldview, or maybe my quick-to-please disposition. But I prefer to think this is a one-of-a-kind interaction, where certain books and I find one another, like lovers – at once relieved and inspired.

Such is how I feel while reading Lewis Thomas. I wish he had made an audio book, much like Carl Sagan – so I could share the gems with you, from his own voice.

To create a summary of my thoughts from these books, would border on plagiarism, with much less wit, clarity, kindness, and eloquence than the original authors, but alas I try – and try in a british accent.

Some snippets from ‘Your very good health’  - From Lives of a Cell, Notes of a Biology Watcher – Lewis Thomas, 1974.

In this chapter from 1974, Thomas reflected on what is now a booming industry and failing system – “Health Care”.  In both, the bottom line is that health is a product, provided to consumers on demand. We even call ourselves Health Care Providers (HCPs).  We are expected to offer up our knowledge, research and experience;


As if by some stroke of luck we could provide another with the product of health.

Even if we, the providers, see ourselves as caretakers, educated guides & imperfect diagnosticians – general society sees the final outcome as a good – to be bought and sold, to be evaluated and improved upon. One could assume that there was a timer, a buzzer and busy HCP elves working fastidiously to create the prettiest, most pleasing future for an individual. Cancer, heart disease, genetics, chronic illness – each condition viewed as a hanging carrot, that we just aren’t working hard enough or fast enough to find “the answer”.

Product: commonly – a consumable, manufactured or refined for sale; a result of action or process.

  • Etymologically – brought forth into being, from raw materials – to bring into existence.

Medicine: commonly – the science & art of diagnosis and treatment; A compound to treat disease.

  • Etymologically – Where I love the poetry in medicine: …. “After meditating on and deliberately  weighing the illness, the medicus, the agent who also judges, counsels, and  attends the patient and his ills, can well be the physician.”


The value of the physician is derived far more from what may be called his general qualities than from his special knowledge. A sound knowledge of the aetiology, pathology, and natural history of the commoner diseases is a necessary attribute of any competent clinician. But such qualities as good judgement, the ability to see the patient as a whole, the ability to see all aspects of a problem in the right perspective, and the ability to weigh up evidence are far more important than the detailed knowledge of some rare syndrome, or even the possession of an excellent memory and a profound desire for learning. – (John W. Todd, MD 1951)

The meaning of what it is to practice medicine – whether using natural or non-natural substances, has been usurped by the term healthcare.


As if we humans need some protocol-based form of coddling, to ward off all that might break our fragile shells.

As if our beautiful bodies aren’t a fantastic orchestra, that have not needed conducting even once, since we began as small cells. We have come this far, in spite of, not because of our meddling.

“Most things get better by themselves. Most things, in fact, are better by morning.”

There is no use in faulting yourself as a reason for why you now have a cold, or why you became ill. We don’t know why.

I commend the hardworking researchers out there, for digging as deep as they can, for carving out questions to ask and discern – so that we learn just a little more about the complex symbiotic system we are in. It is an invaluable part of my profession, searching for the cause of a condition, and I respect it.

Yet, at the end of the day, we never really know whether it is symptom treatment or source treatment. We are digging holes, thinking that wherever we stop, must be the bottom. And it is. For now. 


In fact, there is no black pearl.

“Illness and death still exist and cannot be hidden….We do not become sick only because of a failure of vigilance. Most illness, especially the major ones, are blind accidents that we have no idea how to prevent.”

This is when the field of Medicine is called up to bat.

Medicine. It is an unnerving, decisive, and hopeful profession. We are light years away from fully understanding our bodies and nature, yet we, the bumbling physicians try our darndest to mediate the effects of an illness, and hopefully hold your hand through the whole of your life.

“Meanwhile, we are paying too little attention, and respect, to the built-in durability and sheer power of the human organism. Its surest tendency is toward stability and balance. It is a distortion, with something profoundly disloyal about it, to picture the human being as teetering, fallible contraption, always needing watching and patching, always on the verge of flapping to pieces.”

We are not in a war, guarding territory for the next assault – surely to live this way is a recipe for madness and obsessive-compulsion.


I would think our cells would scream in retort:

Stop micro-managing me!

It may be wise to consider that the bulk of our preventative measures are at most, hopeful. You will fall ill. You will die. Our human nature will attempt in all its glory, in every profession, to make you think you aren’t good enough & that there is a solution to that.

I propose: Choose new therapies & ideas because you are curious, adventurous & hopeful but most certainly not because you want to be perfect. You already are. Even in illness.

If you wish to use the fighting metaphor for illness, take it from the words of the first poet I ever read:

“To be nobody but yourself –  in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” – e.e. cummings

Usually, I come across more arrogantly than I feel. Sorry about that. Even so, I hope it intrigues you enough to find yourself a copy of The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. If you do, Lewis Thomas will serve you up a delectable array of desserts. Taste them all. They are sweeter than I can describe.

Buy it from a used bookstore. Not online. Keep bookstores alive.