Once diagnosed with chronic illness by a physician, although we expect much more, their work is often done, just as the operating surgeon who literally washes his hands of us, may never see us again after the procedure. We may be sorely disappointed that this is the case, but it is. I don’t disparage the doctor for this fact.
But unlike our physician experiences with curable incidents of acute illness, chronic illness by definition generally precludes cure, rather it emphasizes management. If we are fortunate, a team approved if not directed by a physician, steps in. Something is altered in our experience, however, if we do not recognize the loss of symbolic power the “fantasy” of the physician’s power.
Acting as the carrier of the archetypal image of the healer may well be the most important role that a physician provides for a patient with chronic illness. Even specific pharmaceutical and technological interventions, assimilated into the placebo effect, owe much of their ability to treat effectively to the power of this archetype. The presence or absence of symptoms in many individual cases of chronic illness are frequently due as much to the healing forces represented by particular physicians and other health care personnel as to any other definable medical agent.
This is as true in contemporary Western medicine as in older, more traditional practices and ways of dealing with enduring illness and suffering. In fact, only recently has the physician become the container for the archetype of the healer. Practitioners of the medical arts were formerly suspect and guilty of quackery and incompetence, and their visits seen as a last resort.
Although the effectiveness of both local and itinerant healers as setters of broken limbs was sometimes acknowledged, this was a skill demonstrated by those who tended horses as well. Preparing potions for pain and other maladies, applying herbal remedies, assisting in child birth, and giving comfort to the elderly or dying were roles typically filled by women of the community.