Disease comes from the old French word desaise meaning ‘lack of ease.’ In other words, the noticeable presence of pain, anxiety, concern, depravity, and as health professionals most commonly see it – illness. Illness – whether you define it as a malfunctioning organ, part of an organ, a specific body structure, or single body system – is caused by myriad stressors ranging from genetic mix-ups, to infectious microorganisms, to toxins, to bad nutrition, and to environmental imbalance. Regardless of the etiology and overall effect of disease, disease is seen in all forms of human, animal, and environmental life. One could even say computers plagued with a virus are diseased.
However you choose to see it, disease connects all life on earth. We all learn about it, we all see it, we all question it, we all try to manage it, we will all experience it, and at some point in our lives we will die from it. It may be difficult to fully accept, sure, but disease is normal. No matter how bad it can be, it is a natural part of life. No matter how much sadness, grief, and discomfort it may cause it is still a normal part of existence and it is not going anywhere.
The normalcy of disease, to me, is made apparent when others share the load of disease together, but not in the sense of one person showing empathy towards another person with disease while not having that disease as well. I am talking about a much stronger connection, one that is created when two people have the same disease. Even further, when an animal and their human caretaker share the same disease, it seems much of the pain, anxiety, concern, and depravity is assuaged just enough so that life can be enjoyed. Although both experience “lack of ease” they are taking care of one another and finding comfort in their shared experience.
As a veterinary student, I have seen this sharing of disease, this special connection, between owners and their pets. I have met owners and their pets who have shared salmonella and E. coli infections. I have discussed diabetes management for a cat whose owner, too, was a diabetic. I have explained the process of cervical disc herniation in a dog whose owner suffered the same injury two years prior. I have spoken about degenerative myelopathy in dogs with an owner whose daughter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I have met owners whose pets and family members have cancer.
These experiences were humbling, and I am simply passing them on in writing as food for thought. Disease causes heartache, pain, confusion, and anything else you would like to fill in to finish this sentence. But it seems, after listening to and observing these scenarios and others like them in the hospital and clinic, being able to share the effects of disease engenders an understanding that leads to acceptance. And it is this acceptance of disease that brings a comfort modern medicine cannot provide.
Think about this idea the next time you are in an appointment, talking with peers about a case, or in the middle of a phone consult. Share your experiences with others and let me know. I am interested to hear your thoughts.