Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence by Dr Gavin Francis review – the art of getting better

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Universal Images Group North America LLC/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Universal Images Group North America LLC/Alamy

This helpful history and guide reveals that the sometimes difficult healing process is part of what makes us human

Getting better is rarely something that happens all the time. Whether we’ve been seriously ill or injured, everyone has to experience the complexities of recovery as the aftermath. Aftermath is an old agricultural term meaning “a second crop” growing unexpectedly in the space left by the main harvest and it can entail difficult decisions about what should be done with these remnants.

Recovery can feel like a second crop, something to be welcomed because we have survived, but an unpredictable and strange new phase in our healing. The medical professionals who have guided us through the harvest of treatment have usually moved on, replaced by different kinds of responders to the changes in our health. We find our questions about what is happening to us are answered more slowly, with what seems like a lower priority than before.

More of the work that is needed, it turns out, is up to us and it is likely to be slow going. Often, the field in which we have been left alone is vast and the ground is churned and the few green shoots growing there stand far apart and hardly seem worth gathering.

Most powerfully of all, he describes how recovery is possible even if the biological causes of illness cannot be fixed

Francis’s book explains recovery as a discrete therapeutic entity that deserves our full attention and why we should never give up trying to get better, even when it seems we couldn’t get much worse. Recovery is a difficult but essential part of what makes us human. In his characteristically deft case studies, he shows how it’s the time that recovery takes that is, over and over again, the greatest challenge to patient and care-giver.

GPs might be allocated a certain number of minutes (or Zoom calls) with each of their recovering patients in which they might prescribe painkillers, talks with the physiotherapist, nature walks or participation in a group activity. Although focused on the individual, each time a doctor has a conversation with a patient about the time their recovery is taking, they are also addressing all of us, asking us to reset our expectations of medicine that have grown unrealistic. Not everything can be fixed quickly or easily and sometimes never quite completely.

To show this, Francis recalls the rich history of slow-paced recovery and of the places and people who enabled it. Not all of it was effective (the milk cures that confined patients to bed for weeks did much harm and no good) but the underlying recognition of taking our time to rebuild ourselves is a profound insight into human regenerative capabilities. We used to know this, but somewhere in the white heat of changing medical technologies, we forgot and came instead to expect the instant and the effortless.

Where Francis’s book is particularly strong is in delineating the different forms of recovery that humans are required to undertake. He looks at recovery from long Covid, from profound stress and unhappiness, from misfortune. Most powerfully of all, he describes how recovery is possible even if the biological causes of illness cannot be fixed. Recovery in the context of terminal illness is about resolution and the achievement of a kind of equilibrium in the remaining time left to a life-limited human. Francis draws on both the writings of Oliver Sacks and from his own patient list to relate the experiences of how it is to be both dying and, in truly remarkable ways, recovering new forms of humanity, even if only for a short while.

This is a short and informative book for those involved in their own recovery and those who support them as they do so. It contains fascinating and useful tips to supplement standard medical resources available to patients (the absolute therapeutic importance of nature, achieving moments of grace, pets and why bathrobes are generally more useful than towels). For all of us managing our way through complicated lives that have yet to deliver the harvests we were expecting, Francis offers hope and a rare and precious form of quiet consolation.

Emily Mayhew is historian in residence at the department of bioengineering, Imperial College London

Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence by Dr Gavin Francis is published by Profile (£4.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply