Medical Interventions, Suddenness and Finding A New Normal

Kristina Fleuty // I have approached most of my posts for Synapsis during this academic year with a view to relating medical and health humanities topics in some way to veterans or the military experience. For my final post this year, I return to Harry Parker’s contemporary novel, Anatomy of a Soldier, aspects of which I wrote about for my first two posts, ‘Exploring the Human Side of Military Medicine Through Anthropomorphized Objects’, parts one and two.

Describing medical treatment or healthcare as an “intervention” suggests it is an interruption to an otherwise ordinary life trajectory; medical treatment not previously the norm. For some people, of course, it is very much a part of everyday life, but for others, needing medical treatment accompanies the suddenness of an accident or new knowledge of a previously unknown illness. Such is the case for Parker’s protagonist, who finds himself an amputee without warning. Parker explores how Tom and those around him cope with this sudden change, as Tom is thrust into an existence of hospitals, health professionals, and physiotherapy.

New research on the lived experience of limb loss differentiates between two circumstances of limb loss: that which is expected and can be planned for, and that which is sudden or unexpected (Engward, Fleuty, and Fossey, 2018). The research details the trauma of sudden limb loss, an initial relief at still being alive, no time to prepare for life after limb loss, the realization that life has changed, and the isolation of coping with and managing an unexpected life change. Tom returns home after his initial recovery in hospital and is first confronted with the realization that suddenly life has changed irrevocably.

This realization is triggered by changes to Tom’s home living environment; a bed is brought downstairs for him to use, and this simple change reminds him that no longer can he easily and effortlessly climb the stairs to go to bed. Normal domestic occurrences like going to bed, eating at the dinner table, and mobilizing around the home are altered by limb loss. The home environment can be considered a marker of an individual’s “normal,” where we carry out many of life’s mundane and unremarkable tasks. Relearning to navigate these tasks as an amputee breaks apart accepted definitions of the domestic “normal.” Parker describes Tom’s realization as he at first struggles to come to terms with returning home, “I suppose being back here, at home, just made everything seem so stark. I’ve been a sick person in a bed, with no legs, broken in hospital. Now I’m getting stronger, I’m becoming a normal person with no legs” (Parker, 2016, 205). Parker acknowledges the necessary identity of the “sick person” that the individual takes on, while in hospital and removed from everyday normalcy, followed by the shift back into “normal” life that can no longer be lived as before. Tom continues, “I’m back in the real world and I suddenly remember what I used to be able to do, what I might have achieved — and it feels like all that’s been taken away.” Tom realises he must come to terms with a “new normal,” which, for him, at first seems lacking.

As the novel progresses, Tom undergoes a process of redefining what is normal. The transition to a new normal is most keenly portrayed towards the end of the novel, through the example of falling over. Falling over is a normal part of life as an amputee and something that is often more readily accepted by the amputee themselves than by those around them (Engward, Fleuty, and Fossey, 2018). Family members and onlookers can become understandably worried at seeing an amputee fall over, but, for the amputee, the concern and attention from others at what has become a normal occurrence can be a source of frustration or self-consciousness. Tom falls over on his prosthetic at the end of the book, mildly injuring himself, and Parker writes, “[y]ou looked at the deep red grooves down your palms and the black grit pushed under your skin. It stung and hardened into pain as you stared at them, but then you smiled and started to laugh at the pain and the blood that dripped from your hands. And tears came because you could, and it didn’t matter any more. It was normal.” Accepting falling over as normal for Tom signals his acceptance of himself as an amputee and his ownership of his new normal.

Parker’s reader is forced to question what is normal, and why it is that some things are considered normal and some abnormal. For Tom, it is about establishing a new normal, making something typically considered abnormal, being an amputee, part of the normal and mundane. Tom’s experience reflects a wider consideration of how significant it is for individuals to be able to come to terms with how normal life will change as a result of accident, illness, or disease, and thus redefine what normal means to them, to cope with the long-term effects or changes.

Engward, H., Fleuty, K. and Fossey, M., 2018. Caring and Coping: The Family Perspective on Living with Limb Loss. Final Report. London: Blesma.

Parker, H., 2016. Anatomy of a Soldier. London: Faber & Faber.

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