I took my first medical anthropology course during the spring semester of my freshman year. I realized I was hooked to the field in the middle of a lecture in Professor Rivkin-Fish’s Comparative Healing Systems class. As I recall, we were discussing an anthropological explanation of the transition from the era of midwifery prevalence to the rise of obstetrics and gynecology as a male-dominated, biomedical “profession.” Previously, I had been drawn to the natural sciences and their steadfast faith in the scientific-method, evidence-based research and the like. Fortunately, my first medical anthropology class – and the many that ensued – opened my eyes and my mind to the extremely complex nature of human beings and the way the world works in general. Though we may like to view the world as regimented, consistent and predictable; this is rarely the case. I continued to learn this lesson throughout my college career and have carried it with me into what many call “the real world.”
In October my grandmother died. I’m still not sure what to say Meme died from – she had early onset Alzheimer’s, but her technical cause of death was “failure to thrive.”
Meme was my mother’s mother. My mom spent the last few years of Meme’s life making frequent trips to upstate New York, where Meme lived in a retirement community not far from her home. Last summer, it became clear that it was best for her to move down to an elderly care community in Durham, North Carolina, where my parents live. In Meme’s final weeks, she moved in with my parents. There, my mother, father, and sister Jess took care of her. My mother has a background in community health and social work, my father is a primary care physician, and Jess is in medical school at Duke. Jess’ twin, Kait, and I visited from Philadelphia and New York City, respectively.
It is difficult for me to try to point out exclusive instances when my coursework in medical anthropology affected my experience of Meme’s death, because medical anthropology was the lens through which I experienced absolutely everything. Without this lens, I imagine I would have seen the process of Meme’s death as generally predetermined: this is just the way death happens. Yet medical anthropology taught me to look at each health narrative as distinctly subjective, complex, and unique. Readings and class discussions on dignity, the language of disease, patient agency, moral economies of health, and the politics of end-of-life care suddenly became very real, and even more complicated than I had imagined. Every tiny decision and interaction was a critical opportunity to explore how we – my particular family, in this particular time and place and culture, with this particular relationship to healthcare – attempted to make sense of and make peace with Meme’s illness. In this essay, I examine how medical anthropology as an intellectual tool for engaging with my grandmother’s death profoundly enriched my emotional and spiritual experience as a granddaughter, daughter, and sister.