Researchers find roots of modern humane treatment

August 25, 2016, St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center

Researchers at Barrow Neurological Institute have traced the roots of humane medical practices to a pioneering French physician who treated people with deformities as humans instead of "monsters," as they were commonly called.

The physician, André Feil, established practices that have become health care norms more than a century later. Feil wrote a 1919 medical school thesis on cervical abnormalities defying long-held opinions about people with "monstrous" deformities—that their conditions resulted from moral failure or supernatural causes. Feil and his mentor, Maurice Klippel, described patients with congenital fusion of cervical vertebrae, a rare condition now known as "Klippel-Feil syndrome."

"This was a real revolution in terms of thinking about these patients," said Dr. Mark C. Preul of Barrow, who oversaw the research paper published in the July issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery. "They come in to see you, and they've got problems—and they may be horrific problems to look at—but it doesn't matter. They're human.

"That's really the ultimate message of Feil's thesis," said Barrow's Dr. Preul. "You treat everybody who comes to you with dignity and honor, and you do the utmost that you can when you're treating them." Barrow is part of Dignity Health's St. Joseph Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz.

Barrow researchers discovered Feil's thesis, which they described as "a medical gem," at the University of Paris, Dr. Preul said. The city was at the vanguard of advances in neurology and psychology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"In addition to practicing the science of medicine, (Feil) highlighted the importance of humanism to medicine, and we have inherited his legacy for care and consideration for those we might term 'handicapped,' " Barrow Dr. Evgenii Belykh wrote in the paper. "Although his name is not often encountered in the annals of history, there is no denying that Feil played a critical role in attempting to change a sociocultural mind-set rooted in ignorance and fear."

Dr. Preul said modern-day reminders of Feil's groundbreaking work are common; one example is the public's view of disabled people, including military veterans.

"One example is that the Olympics used to show what we would call normal athletes," Dr. Preul said. "But I've noticed advertisements for Paralympic athletes. These people are fantastic physical specimens. There's some real thought and advanced scientific efforts about how we can help these people achieve a normal integration into society again. This attitude just didn't start yesterday, but our ability to provide it technologically has been lacking. This is a long time in coming."

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