A Patient’s Fight to Be a Protagonist

Today is the 40th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s longtime secretary, was in Rome today marking the occasion and remembering cradling the pope as he felt “his body slip as if paralyzed and fall into my arms.”

The cardinal also reflected, “Today, 40 years after that event, and 16 years after his death, I think with fear of what it would have been like if we had lost him in St. Peter’s Square back then. How poor and different the world and our homeland, Poland, would have been without his witness of faith and doctrine, without his indications and his warnings in the face of the dangers and turmoil that can threaten us in today’s world.”

What I recall, in particular, on this day is how George Weigel described John Paul II as a patient.

In the biography, Witness to Hope, Weigel wrote:

The Pope was an active patient, determined to understand what was happening to him and to have a say in his care. He had Dr. Crucitti explain the anatomy and normal workings of the intestine and the way in which the colostomy compensated for his temporary disability. When the doctors gathered for a consultation in the meeting room of his suite, he would poke fun at them afterward: “What did the Sanhedrin say today? What did the Sanhedrin decide on my behalf?” He was joking, but the joke had edge on it. Part of the struggle of an illness, he once told his doctors, was that a patient had to fight to become “the ‘subject of his illness’ instead of simply remaining the ‘object of treatment.’” The dignity of the human person was not surrendered at the hospital door.

“The subject of his illness instead of simply remaining the object of treatment.”

John Paul II’s hospitalization led him to this existential understanding of being at once a subject and an object and yet, in his vulnerability, being at a heightened risk of being treated merely as an ‘object of treatment’.

The patient, being always a person, does not lose his or her agency – however incapacitated he or she may be – because he or she is still an agent, an actor– the protagonist in the drama of his or her own life.

On the anniversary of this attempted assassination, I think about how relevant John Paul II’s insight is to healthcare in our world today and how much we still have to learn from his witness not only as pope, but also as an active patient.

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