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Toward a phenomenology of congenital illness: a case of single-ventricle heart disease


Phenomenology has contributed to healthcare by providing resources for understanding the lived experience of the patient and their situation. But within a burgeoning literature on the characteristic features of illness, there has not yet been an account appropriate to describe congenital illnesses: conditions which are present from birth and cause suffering or medical threat to their bearers. Congenital illness sits uncomfortably with standard accounts in phenomenology of illness, in which concepts such as loss, doubt, alienation and unhomelikeness presuppose prior health. These accounts reflect, in different ways, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s assumption that the ways of living of the ill contain allusions to fundamental, healthy functions. The originality of congenital illness complicates this assumption and demands its own original phenomenology. In this paper, I sketch my personal experience living with a single-ventricle heart condition. While some of this story may reflect my own idiosyncratic experience, I hope that much of it will resonate with the congenital illness experience. I argue that the phenomenological literature on illness, grounded in the notion of loss, does not describe the congenital illness experience. I show how a number of other patient-centred theories of health and illness which have been influential on phenomenology can and cannot elucidate congenital illness. In particular, I consider Georges Canguilhem’s account of the normal and the pathological; debates in disability; and the notion of illness as biographical disruption. I show that congenital illness results in the preadmission of its patients to a paradoxical logic of medical palliation, one product of which is existential maturity.

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This research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship.

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Correspondence to Pat McConville.

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McConville, P. Toward a phenomenology of congenital illness: a case of single-ventricle heart disease. Med Health Care and Philos 24, 587–595 (2021).

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  • Congenital illness
  • Phenomenology
  • Lived experience
  • Biographical disruption
  • Congenital heart disease