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THE HEALER-PATIENT/FAMILY RELATIONSHIP IN VONDA N. McINTYRE'S "OF MIST, AND GRASS, AND SAND" ANNE HUDSONJONES* Never before has so much attention been focused on the physicianpatient relationship. Philosophers, theologians, historians, lawyers, sociologists, and economists aU over the country are trying to analyze and define what that relationship is and what it should be. They offer abstract constructs such as the paternaüstic model and the contractual model. But as helpful as such models may be in theoretical arguments, their practical application is limited by their abstract nature. The complexities of human relationships have long resisted codification; the relationship between healer and patient is no exception. Literary models of the healer-patient relationship are helpful for precisely this reason: they flesh out the dynamics of the human relationship that underUes a particular healer-patient encounter. By so doing, they demonstrate the many nuances of emotions that enter into any human exchange—and especially into one surcharged with the possibility of death. An unusually rich and instructive example ofthe healer-patient/family relationship is offered by Vonda N. Mclntyre in her powerful story "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" [I]. Little known outside science fiction circles , the story won the 1973 Nebula Award—given by the Science Fiction Writers ofAmerica—for best novelette ofthe year. Classical in its formal simplicity, the story is mythic and universal in its thematic significance. The questions impUcit in the story are of interest for all healer-patient/ family relationships: Must physicians bear the responsbiUty for their patients' ignorance, fear, and stupidity? If so, how far are they obligated—or allowed—to go in protecting patients and themselves from that ignorance, fear, and stupidity? What should they do, for example, if family fears interfere with lifesaving treatment of a patient? Must ?Assistant professor, Institute for Medical Humanities, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas 77550.© 1983 by The University of Chicago. AU rights reserved. 0031-5982/83/2602-0335$01.00 274 J Anne HudsonJones · "OfMist, and Grass, and Sand" healers be almost omniscient and know "all the customs and all the fears" [1, p. 285]? Can that really be expected of human healers? Yet without that can healers truly practice the healing art? The Story The story is set in an unnamed desert, in time diat could apparently be future or past. Readers of Mclntyre's later novel Dreamsnake, which incorporates and continues "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," learn that the desert's black sand is charred waste from a nuclear war which has devastated Earth [2]. Those who have not read the novel have no firm basis for surmising the origin of the sand or fixing the time of the novelette. The indefinite setting creates a sense of timelessness around the events of the story that emphasizes both the universality of the story's theme and the basic human elements of the healer-patient/family relationship. The action is simple and takes only a few hours. As the story opens, the protagonist, a young woman named Snake, hasjust crossed 6 days of desert to come to the aid of a young boy who is very ill. Snake bears her name because she uses as tools of her healing three snakes: Mist, an albino cobra; Grass, a small green snake; and Sand, a black-and-tan pit viper. To save the young boy's life, Snake must use Mist to inject drugged poison into the protruding growth in the boy's stomach. She uses Grass to bring the boy sleep and dreams, and Sand to guard her as she treats the boy. Both Grass and Sand can serve other functions in her healing: Grass can aid the dying of patients Snake cannot heal, and Sand can treat certain illnesses as Mist treats this one. The young boy, Stavin, is the only child of three parents—an older husband, a wife, and a younger husband. The tiiree are almost more afraid ofSnake and her snakes than they are ofdeadi for their son. That they summoned Snake to help their son indicates dieir desperation and some degree of courage. After examining Stavin, Snake leaves Grass to watch over him in his sleep and goes...


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pp. 274-280
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