I’ve heard yesterday’s reading about Jesus healing the paralytic at the Sheep Gate with seven porticos (John 5:16) many times, and just like with all the Gospel stories different things resonate at different times depending on where I am at. What struck me about it yesterday though was John’s initial description: “In these [porticos] … lay a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.” He said to Jesus, “Sire, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up: while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.” The footnote says, From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.
So in 38 years no one had helped him get down to the pool! Were there no assistants around for such cases? Had anyone helped the “large number” of others? The mind boggles at the masses of blind, deaf, and crippled folks abandoned by the porticos to stumble down into the water for a cure if they were lucky enough to make it on their own.
How similar is that to the way modern society, two millennia later, marginalises people with disabilities, those with serious illness who cannot be cured? That’s where palliative care comes in — it is for everyone, and is slowly developing protocols for persons with disabilities. IAHPC convened several organisations at the UN in Geneva earlier this year to have a parallel event on the topic at the Social Forum, addressing palliative care for the deaf, for children with disabilities, and for older adults with dementia.
While palliative care teams can’t always help people “take up their mats and walk” as Jesus did in that particular case, they can definitely (a) be present to provide clinical support, and (b) to help patients down into the healing waters when the angel stirs them up, supporting the person’s inherent dignity, providing spiritual care on request, and helping relieve pain and distressing symptoms.
The Bethsaida scene in John’s gospel is Lourdes without any patient assistants. That was the saddest thing for me in yesterday’s story, the lack of community. It was a source of joy, though, to know that today we can people that same scene with palliative care teams who can wheel patients down to the water when it is stirred up, when either we, or someone we love is faced with a life-limiting illness. Integrating palliative care into health systems will leave no one stranded by the pool when the angel comes.