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Disability: A Frank Discussion with “Dr. Dan”

News January 31, 2014

Daniel Gottlieb, PhD, a practicing family therapist and host of WHYY’s award-winning radio show “Voices in the Family,” recently visited Temple for an open conversation about disability with faculty, staff and students. The session was hosted by Michael Selzer, MD, PhD, Director of the Shriners Hospitals Pediatric Research Center, based at Temple University School of Medicine.
“Dr. Dan” and Dr. Selzer spoke about disability as it relates not only to patients and families, but also to physicians and researchers in the field. They spoke about it professionally and personally. Dr. Gottlieb recounted his life both before and after 1979, when a near-fatal car accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. His post-accident days were seared with despair. But human kindness and generosity helped him build the successful, relationship-rich life he now enjoys. “Truth is, now I rarely feel paralyzed,” he said.
“The greatest pain of disability or any ‘dis-ease,’” said Dr. Gottlieb, “is a sense of disconnection from the species to which we belong. Conversely, ease comes from a sense of connection. We must feel valued and needed by others to feel whole.”
The conversation provided Temple’s healthcare professionals opportunity to talk about issues rarely openly discussed. When they spoke about funding for spinal cord injury research, for example, Dr. Selzer asked Dr. Gottlieb to comment on what he thinks is most important: basic research or applied research. Patients tend to fall into two camps. Some want to see science aim for the brass ring, while others think that funds are better spent on more “practical” things. Dr. Gottlieb said that both types of research are needed -- and Dr. Selzer agreed. Then faculty in the audience raised the issue of how much “hope” a physician should give patients about recovering function.
“There are two kinds of hope,” Dr. Gottlieb said, “Hope that helps, and hope that hurts.” On one hand, we want patients with serious diagnoses like quadriplegia to hope that their lives can still have meaning and value. But the wrong kind of hope can ruin people's lives.
“When I first became quadriplegic 34 years ago, the doctors told me I should not hold out hope that I would ever walk again. In hindsight, that was a gift,” said Dr. Gottlieb, remembering the patients who were advised to never give up hope. They went home and waited for some breakthrough in science, falling into deep despair.
“Sometimes hopelessness is a painful truth that we must face squarely,” advised Dr. Gottlieb. “Better to give up hope and say the words that open us to resilience and creativity: ‘This is awful, and I don't think it will change. What now?’"
Dr. Gottlieb addressed the topic of hope that helps and hope that hurts in recent Huffington Post blogs. He is also author of the international best seller, Letters to Sam, a touching portrait of his relationship with his autistic grandson. His new book, The Wisdom We Were Born With, will be published in March.
Founded in 2009, the Shriners Hospitals Pediatric Research Center conducts basic and clinical neural repair and pediatric neuro-rehabilitation research in collaboration with Temple faculty. The Shriners Hospital on Temple’s health sciences campus is one of three Shriners hospitals nationwide specializing in treating children with spinal cord injury and related neuromuscular disorders. A leading physician-scientist in the field, Dr. Selzer is senior editor of Brain Research and Immediate Past President of the World Federation for NeuroRehabilitation.