Endurance Test

“No Resilience Here” mixed media, 2015, Josephine Ensign

What helps us—as health care providers, as caregivers, as people, as communities— endure the various traumas and sufferings we’re exposed to indirectly and that we experience ourselves?

Resilience is something that is often cited as an answer to this question. Resilience is a term that has been adapted from engineering to describe the ability of a substance, such as a metal, to return to its previous state after being stressed—the substance is able to bounce back, to return to steady state, to normal. The American Psychological Association definition of resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat.” Resilience is sometimes referred to as ‘good survival.’

Over the past several decades there has been an explosion of research on resilience, mainly focusing on individual risk and protective factors. The main protective factors are, not surprisingly: 1) the formation of a firm, secure attachment to a parent or caretaker figure within the first few years of life; 2) prosocial behaviors and personality traits, such as empathy, a positive attitude, capacity for forgiveness, and ability to ‘play well with others’; and 3) a sense of personal agency, of being able to act, to do something positive both in the midst and the wake of trauma. The main risk factors are, not surprisingly, the opposite of the protective factors.

Most research on resilience has focused on the individual, is Western-centric, and has increasingly become biologically reductionist, narrowing in on the epigenetics of trauma and resilience, finding individuals and entire communities of people with ‘short alleles’ and DNA methylation—genetic markers of increased vulnerability to the adverse effects of trauma. That these are most often individuals and communities already marginalized by poverty and racism and other socially-constructed vulnerabilities, serves to further label and pathologize people and communities. It marks them as damaged goods. As irredeemably, permanently damaged goods. It typically ignores the mounting research evidence indicating that such epigenetic damage is largely reversible and preventable with appropriate life experiences—with access to appropriate life experiences, including effective therapeutic interventions.

Resilience-building interventions include cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy; therapies focused on building the capacity for empathy and forgiveness; narrative storytelling and other meaning-making therapies; and therapies aimed at increasing social support—social support that includes social touch—the human version of primate grooming. Good touch: a handshake, a peck on the cheek, or a hug in greeting; a hand brushing a shoulder in sympathy; sitting close to a stranger on a bus; washing the feet of people who are homeless, people who are rarely touched in a good way.

This all sounds good, but resilience irritates me. The whole saccharine notion that the human body, the human psyche, and even entire communities can be like heated metal—stressed and stretched but not broken—that they can bounce back, return to steady state, and perhaps be stronger and wiser for the experience?  Certainly, I believe that strength-based research and interventions are an important and sizeable improvement over our traditional deficit models so prevalent within health and social services. But resilience has its dark side.

Resilience tends to glorify trauma, and contributes to an addiction to pain and to suffering: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Be the hero of your own life. Cancer saved my life, made me a better person. And Hemingway’s “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” It glosses over the fact that trauma and resilience are not equal opportunity affairs, that some people (women, children, people with various disabilities, non-whites, and gender nonconforming people), and some communities (marginalized by homelessness, poverty, racism, and the effects of colonization) are much more likely to be exposed to traumas in the first place, and they have fewer resources to weather and recover from the traumas. It ignores the larger structural inequities, as well as the stigmatizing narratives we place on certain people, communities, and entire impoverished countries. As physician, anthropologist and global health champion Paul Farmer reminds us, “The capacity to suffer is, clearly, part of being human. But not all suffering is equal, in spite of pernicious and often self-serving identity politics that suggest otherwise.” (p 288)

Trauma never happens in isolation, even if it is a one-time trauma that occurs to one individual, trauma happens within the context of a particular family, community, cultural, social, and time period. An individual trauma ripples outwards as well as inwards. Suffering from trauma is always a social process; recovering from trauma is always a social process. If suffering is a universal yet unequal human experience, being able to tell and listen to illness and trauma narratives matters. But it doesn’t stop there. Physician, anthropologist, and expert on illness narratives Arthur Kleinman admonishes us that it is the moral and emotional cores of these experiences that matter much more, including the cores of social suffering that especially affect marginalized people.

Kleinman also encourages us to ask the question, What helps us endure? “And I mean by endure withstand, live through, put up with, and suffer. I do not mean the currently fashionable and superficially optimistic idea of ‘resilience’ as denoting a return to robust health and happiness. Those who have struggled in the darkness of their own pain or loss, or that of patients or loved ones, know that these experiences, even when left behind, leave traces that may only be remembered viscerally but shape their lives beyond.” (p 119)

Note: This is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, Soul Stories, a collection of essays on the role of narrative in health and healing.


Paul Farmer. ‘On suffering and structural violence: a view from below.’ In: Violence in War and Peace. Edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois. (New York)/ Blackwell Publishing (2004). pp 281-289.

Arthur Kleinman. “The art of medicine: how we endure.” The Lancet. January 11, 2014. Vol 383. pp 119-120.


Hospital Quality: A Different View

Paul Farmer (of Partners in Health fame) has an easy-to-apply formula for DSC00749quickly assessing the quality of hospitals or clinics anywhere in the world. He says that given the resources of the country, he looks at the quality of the hospital/clinic bathrooms and the gardens surrounding it. Based on just those two items, he claims he can accurately assess overall hospital/clinic quality—and afterwards correlate it with more ‘objective’ measures of quality and safety. Try out his quality assessment at your own hospital/clinic work-site, and maybe as a New Year’s resolution try to influence improvements.

My office at work is in the world’s largest university building: the Warren G. Magnuson Health Sciences Building at the University of Washington. The building has close to 6,000, 000 square feet of space and is composed of over twenty wings whose hallways are connected, but in a haphazard, disorienting way. The building is an Escher-esque sort of place, with faceless people wandering the hallways and strange concrete staircases going everywhere and nowhere. Ten thousand or so people work (or are hospital patients) in this building. At any given time at least half of the people are lost. I am usually one of them. The building includes a hospital and four health science schools—medicine, nursing, public health and dentistry. The fifth health science school—social work—was lucky and is far across campus in its own (very small) building.

The Health Sciences Building is sandwiched between three busy streets and one busy ship canal. Many of its courtyards are completely covered in concrete, with only a few stalwart and scraggly rhododendrons popping up in places. The bathrooms are tiled and painted a sickly yellow-beige that reminds me of public high school gym locker rooms.

My office is in the ugliest wing of the world’s largest university building. My office has a fault line running through it. There is a 6-inch wide grey rubber seam that bisects my office in two—it runs up one wall, across the ceiling, down the other wall, and across the floor. This rubber seam is the building’s earthquake shock absorbers. I often wonder what it would be like to stand on the fault line during an earthquake. Would I be safer there than ducking under my fake-wood desk? My office also has a door that goes nowhere. Supposedly it allows access to various pipes and electrical wires in the concrete-encased outer phalanges of the building. This door is perpetually locked and I have hung a silk scarf over it to make it seem less weird. I tell students it’s where old faculty members go to die. I often want to crawl in there and take a nap.

The particular part of the Health Sciences building I work in, the T-wing, was built in the late 1960’s and is a prime example of Brutalism. It is also a prime example of why Brutalism is not an architectural style suited either for Seattle weather or for being attached to a hospital. Outside and inside it appears to be made of crumbling, damp and moldy concrete. In one staircase I use there are arm-sized stalactites forming on the ceiling and liquid is perpetually dripping from their pointed ends into a black and green puddle in one corner of a stair landing. It has a bizarre beauty. Over Winter Break the stalactites were removed and the ceiling painted over. I find that I miss them.

University of Washington Medical Center does fairly well on most quality measures included in Medicare’s Hospital Compare. Under ‘patient satisfaction survey’ they include an item on cleanliness of bathrooms. (Gardens aren’t included). If you haven’t used this website before, I encourage you to do a search of hospitals in your area. They have recently added a section on hospital readmission rates.

Of cheese, erectile dysfunction, and health reform

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And jewelry.

Those were the main take-away messages of yesterday’s nurse practitioner conference at the Washington State Convention Center. There was a lot of mention of the role of nutrition in health, and of individual responsibility for health in some of the sessions I attended—and in the booths at the vendor section. I saw very few obese attendants at this conference—are nurse practitioners skinner on average than their RN counterparts, and if so, why?

The Washington State Dairy Association had free cheese sticks and food pyramids or food Great Walls of China, or whatever architectural wonders they are using now to rank food groups. At a session on health care reform, the speaker spent a lot of time talking about the nutritional content of ‘fast foods’—the winner of the junk-food hall of fame seems to be Baskin Robbins’ Oreo Milkshake at a gazillion calories. As if that is the cause of the dismal health outcomes in our country.

This was at a workshop session by Louise Kaplan, a nurse practitioner who has her doctorate in health policy. She is past president of the Washington State Nurses Association, founder of the first Washington State Nurse Lobby Day in 1984 (in serious need of reform itself–see previous blog post The Nurse Lobby Day That Wasn’t–Feb 15th, 2011), and currently is a Senior Policy Fellow at the American Nurses Association. Besides the information on the Oreo Milkshake, she said we didn’t have health care reform, we had health insurance reform. This statement got applause from the audience, but not from me. This is a profound statement? This is news to anyone? And health insurance in the US is not a significant part of our health care system?

After her talk I asked her if the ANA was looking at reform of the health professions regulatory system in the US. She asked me what I see as the problem with this system—what is in need of reform. I told her in 20 words or less—including that it is not effective in protecting the health of the public, that it drives up health care costs and worsens health inequities. She replied that it was up to each individual state to regulate health professions, and that the ANA would have nothing to say about that—only what the IOM Future of Nursing Report recommended in terms of a consensus on scope of practice for nurses and nurse practitioners. Her response did not surprise me, but I was disappointed in the stock reply.

I loved the vendor area because it was so informative about the role of nurse practitioners in our health care system. Somehow it felt like reading People Magazine—as Paul Farmer says, it is a cultural touchstone. There were many of the major drug company’s represented, including Lilly’s erectile dysfunction “weekend pill” that seemed popular among the ladies. The Washington State Nursing Quality Care Commission had a booth that included a 10-question survey on knowledge of the role/responsibilities of the Commission. There were many booths for local educational programs for nurses, as well as Seattle-area employment agencies/hospitals—and farther afield employment opportunities—the US Navy, the Federal Prisons, Alaska Native American clinics.

But what astounded me was that the most popular booth in the vendor area was a jewelry store. Not fine jewelry, not jewelry for a cause—like for healthcare in Haiti—just glitzy, glittery costume jewelry. Really? There are some things about nursing I am convinced I will never understand.