Two students, one of neuroscience and behavior and the other pre-med, traveled to a Guatemalan hospital on what could be seen as a mission of mercy with “the disabled and abandoned.” (A Spanish Lesson, Intima Field Notes 2012 by Jerold Lundgren and Joseph Featherall.) They also hoped to advance their understanding of medicine in Guatemala, and all this was presaged by a 5-week intensive course in the Spanish language. However, their “confidence and comfort vanished” as they entered a room that erupted in “a cacophony of unintelligible sounds” and they were faced with patients in beds, cribs and wheelchairs whom they assumed to have little or no cognitive capacity. The lesson they learned turned out to be one not specific to medicine, rather one that reaches deeply into human nature and that was found, at least initially, not by their formal language preparation! It is here that our stories cross.
Decades before, I was a college student sent on a respite mission with a severely disabled child whose braced, tethered body in a crib and relentless cries through the night completely unnerved me (Changeling and the Baroness: Notes from a Journey of Enlightenment, Intima, Fall 2016). As Lundgren and Featherall’s first impressions scrubbed cognitive capacity from their charges, I reduced the child’s humanity, my vision fleetingly invoking a changeling. Changelings are tied historically and in folklore to a widespread belief that a previously healthy child is snatched by other-worldly spirits and, in their place, is left a sickly, deformed or incessantly crying child. It is an illusion often borne of overpowering helplessness.
Neither of our ideas, of course, turned out to be true. Reading Lundgren and Featherall’s descriptions, I immediately identified with tugging, grunting, glances, mumblings, unstable arm gestures and relatively unintelligible sounds as the tools of communication. But with connections thus established, interactions with their patients became rich, persuasive and meaningful. In my own interventions, language (conventional speech) has rarely provided first entry. Instead, although I specifically use singing and vocalizations – gestures, facial expressions, body stance and non-linguistic sounds are essential and embedded within. They are, in fact, central to all first human receptive and expressive communication, regardless of chronological age, and are the gateway to genuine interactivity. Along the way, the impoverishment of “otherness” is countered while the understanding emerges, as Lundgren and Featherall discover, that “they are like us.”
Kaja Weeks is a clinic-based Developmental Music Educator with training in early intervention (Floortime/DIR) and a classically-trained singer who has designed the approach, The Relational Voice, to use with children on the autism spectrum. She is a graduate of the 3-year program, New Directions for Writing of the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis (Washington, DC). Her creative writing has been published in The Potomac Review (nominee, Pushcart Prize), The New Directions Journal, Fickle Muses: Journal of Mythic Poetry and Fiction and forthcoming in Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, The Arts and Humanities. Her scholarly works appear in journals and presentations in the United States and Canada.
© 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine