When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine

Nursing Book Club

When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine

How the press puts its own spin on celebrity illnesses

By Barron H. Lerner; The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

The proliferation of paparazzi and tabloids would lead us to believe that we simply cannot satisfy our hunger for intimate knowledge about the lives of famous people. Physician Barron H. Lerner, associate professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University, believes that beyond simply wondering what celebrities wear or where they dine, there are real lessons to learn from how they deal with illness.

Lou Gehrig

The book opens with the story of Lou Gehrig, whom he calls “the first modern patient.” We learn that this powerhouse batter for the New York Yankees entered a slump in the 1938 season, which presaged his illness. A year later, James Kahn, a reporter for the New York Sun, stated that he believed there was something physically wrong with Gehrig. Even so, the public and his teammates seemed more concerned about his protracted batting slump.

Book ReviewGehrig himself asked to be relieved “for the good of the team” even before the neurological disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic. A press release followed, but it seems that his doctors and his wife conspired to keep the full prognosis from him, all the while encouraging him to undergo vitamin therapy until his death two years later. The public was continually reassured that he was recovering.

The author points out that, in the illness of Gehrig and 11 other public figures, the press spins the way their illness is handled. Thus Gehrig, the great athlete, is seen as nobly doing what’s best for the team and fighting his battle with ASL to his death, even as America prepared to enter World War II. The 1942 movie about Gehrig’s life, Pride of the Yankees, begins with writer Damon Runyan stating, “He faced death with the same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of Americans in far-flung fields of valor.” How we face a challenge becomes a reflection of who we are collectively and how the mirror is held up for us by journalists.

Steve McQueen

In a very different example, actor Steve McQueen was the true American loner. He spent a part of his teen years in reform school and then moved on to join the Marines. During the 1960s, he specialized in portraying figures that were “a man’s man” — cocky, self-assured and independent. It’s no surprise that he chose to fight fatal mesothelioma on his own terms.

McQueen followed the enzymatic approach of Dr. William D. Kelley that emphasizes the importance of metabolic balance. Gehrig received tens of thousands of fan letters offering support after his diagnosis was revealed. McQueen assumed the role, according to Lerner, of the “determined, rebellious cancer patient” and the public’s response was divided. He ultimately joined other patients seeking treatment across the border in Mexico. The legacy he left was one of bringing cancer out in the open and fighting it until the disease won.

Rita Hayworth

For many years, actress Rita Hayworth was treated as a drunk when what she really suffered from was early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. With that knowledge, we can regard her behavior not as self-destructive, but as a tragic attempt to preserve her dignity. Her friends and family tried to minimize her exposure to the press in an attempt to allow her to continue her career, which provided her financial support. With the full disclosure of her disease, her daughter, Yasmin Khan, became a spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Association, letting the world know that this disease even strikes the rich and famous.

Drawing lessons from the book allows us to look at the outrageous behavior of figures like Britney Spears with a new eye. Could she be self-medicating a mental illness? Did Lance Armstrong have a duty to continue racing in the Tour de France as an example of a successful testicular cancer victim? When celebrities display physical ailments, are they only making further attempts to gain attention? For me, the bottom line is obvious. Public figures are just like the rest of us. They are also affected with genetic and chronic disease. How that’s handled by the press may depend on the popular culture of the time. What’s standard care one decade is sadly outdated only 10 years later and viewed in a different context by the public. As nurses, we need to look deeper than what the tabloids tell.

Purchase When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine from Amazon

Written By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, a nurse since 1979, has written extensively for various nursing publications as well as The New York Times.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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