Crybabying

I remember (sort of) my days in Elementary School, when one of the most devastating insults a little boy could receive was to be labelled a crybaby. I’m not sure why, really. Maybe it meant you didn’t fit in with the prevailing umwelt –with what you were supposed to be as a little boy- or maybe it was just a talisman raised to guard against the fear that despite its undesirability, it might be hiding in us all –even the accuser. Children are inherently superstitious, don’t you think?

It never occurred to me to wonder about the expression at the time, nor even later when I had children of my own. Babies cry, often too much, and perhaps more to the point, often at inconvenient times: during the nights. But I never suspected that it was sufficiently upsetting that it would transmute into folklore as a children’s curse. In fact, as childhood made way for my adult clothes, I didn’t think much about it at all -let alone as an imprecation- until I happened upon an article in the CBC News: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/babies-crying-health-study-warwick-university-1.4052932 ‘Researchers at the University of Warwick conducted a meta-analysis of studies involving about 8,700 infants in countries including Canada, Germany, Denmark, Japan, Italy and the U.K.’ and guess what? ‘[…]babies in Canada, Britain, Italy and the Netherlands cry more than babies in other countries.’ And not only that, ‘On average, Canadian babies cried 30 minutes more than babies from other countries.’ Great! There goes our long held patriotic claim to be the ‘polite nation’ -the one usually definable by what we are not: (not American, not greedy, not pushy, not… Well, you get the point). ‘Canadian babies had some of the highest levels (peaking at three to four weeks at 34.1 per cent of infants), followed by the U.K. (peaking at one to two weeks at 28 per cent) and Italy (peaking at eight to nine weeks at 20.9 per cent).’ ‘Germany, Japan and Denmark had the least amount of crying and fussing babies.’ Damn.

Mind you, if you actually look at the article reported by the CBC:  http://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476(17)30218-4/fulltext – s0070, ‘Overall, fuss/cry durations were high across the first 6 weeks of life, then reduced significantly over the following 6 weeks. All studies found a “universal” reduction in fuss/cry duration between 6 and 12 weeks of age.’ The reasons for the differences were not at all clear: ‘[…] we can only speculate on the reasons why there are country differences, in particular between Denmark and the rest of Europe and North America. These could range from economic conditions, such as less social inequality, to caretaking patterns such as responsiveness, carrying behavior and management in Denmark that have been shown to differ from the United Kingdom. However, there may also be population genetic differences, and the infants both inherit their parents’ genes and are reared by them (gene-environment correlation). […]Feeding type was a further moderator of fuss/cry duration. Bottle or mixed feeding was associated with reduced duration of fussing and crying or colic from 3-4 weeks of age onward. Switch in feeding type is one frequently adopted method by parents dealing with a crying baby and has been found to reduce crying regardless of what formula change is instituted, suggesting a placebo effect.’

Unfortunately, ‘[…]this is a review of studies in North America and parts of Europe with only 1 study from Japan. No studies from threshold or developing countries were available, but these would be needed to provide adequate feedback to parents on other continents. Feeding type information was also not available for some studies.’

And what about ‘colic’ the catch-all word for persistent crying? ‘The most widely used definition for colic is the “Rule of Three’s”: an infant is considered to have colic if the infant fusses or cries for >3 hours, >3 days per week, for >3 weeks.’ Unfortunately it is, apparently, often a diagnosis of despair with no readily identifiable cause. Indeed, ‘The rapid developmental change in fuss/cry duration has implications for treatment and interpretation of treatment studies. Colic is the extreme of normal fuss/cry behavior, self-limiting, and, thus, the vast majority will spontaneously remit. Adequate management of fussing and crying in the first 3 months rather than treatment may be required. However, if excessive fuss/cry persists beyond the first 3 months, there is increasing evidence that this may indicate regulatory problems with adverse consequences for future development and may require treatment.’

But, bringing it back to Canada, my terre natale, ‘Psychology professor Dieter Wolke, lead author of the study, says Canadian parents need not worry. […] He pointed out that babies in Canada peaked around the three-four week mark but fell into a more normal range around week six.’ …Damned by faint praise again…

And what about Germany, Japan and Denmark? Especially Denmark –why does it always seem to win everything? ‘”In Denmark, it seems to be they’re more relaxed about it,” Wolke said. “They might have a little bit more support because of maternity and paternity laws … the father in the first few weeks can stay at home, too.” It’s worth noting that Denmark regularly falls at or near the top of the “best countries to live in” lists. Wolke speculates that this may foster a population that feels good about itself, and those emotions can transfer to the baby.’

Uhmm, excuse me! ‘”Babies are already very different in how much they cry in the first weeks of life,” the researchers said. “There are large but normal variations”’. So let’s not dump on les petits Canadiens, eh? It’s a squeaky wheel that gets the grease, after all. Right? …I mean that’s right isn’t it…?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Methought I heard a voice cry Sleep No More.

 

I have always had a healthy respect for fire. I suppose this is not unusual, although nowadays fire is not a regular component of our daily lives, so its presence awakens something that alternates between fascination and fear. Something atavistic. Fire –especially unexpected fire- can produce panic; smoke –also if unexpected, or inexplicable- can have the same effect. Both are worthy of our attention, both should command our respect, our search for the source.

That’s why smoke detectors are so valuable. The two commonest detection systems would seem to be either ionization and/or photoelectric –the former, ionization, grew from an attempt in the late 1930ies to detect poison gas, but the advance of the technology did not make it widely available –or affordable- until the 1970ies. The optical variety matured around the same time.

The purpose of both smoke and heat detectors, as we all know, is to alert us to the presence of the potential danger by activating some form of alarm –something that either by sheer volume or unpleasant pitch will demand action. It should arouse us if we are asleep, or get us out of our chairs if we are not. It should be audible over whatever other sounds are present in the environment, and sufficiently different from them to concern us. Usually, smoke alarms have a frequency of around 3000-3200 Hz and need to reach 85 decibels at 3 metres.

Anybody who has ever heard their smoke alarm sounding when the toast burns in the kitchen can attest to the discomfort this incites. It is piercing and –at least for the hearing population- impossible to ignore. Enough to wake the dead, as my mother used to say -but apparently not the child: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38918056  As the BBC article reports, ‘Researchers at Dundee say there are several theories they were exploring as to why standard smoke alarms may not wake children.’ One, however, has led to an interesting innovation. ‘Rodney Mountain, from the University’s School of Medicine, said: “Children’s hearing ability, brain function, sleep patterns and stage of brain development is very different to adults. We are programmed to respond to human voices warning of danger, such as a mother’s voice shouting to warn a child. Children are not born pre-programmed for our modern world of danger warning sounds from digital beeps and sirens -they have to learn, recognise and interpret these sounds.”’

So, the researchers wondered whether the sound of a woman’s voice –a mother surrogate, essentially- might trigger a child’s arousal more effectively. ‘Research by Dundee University and Derbyshire Fire and Rescue found that of 34 children tested, 27 repeatedly slept through smoke detector alarms. They have developed an alarm with a lower pitch and a woman’s voice, which issues a warning: “Wake up, the house is on fire.”’ And, instead of the terrifyingly strident, ear-piercing pitch, ‘the prototype has a lower pitch of 520Hz, to which young children are more likely to respond.’

Of course, this approach is still in its experimental phase and ‘The researchers said it was important the study did not undermine the need for every home to be fitted with smoke alarms, as these will wake adults and had a proven record in saving lives.’

Several weeks after reading this article, I happened to be over for dinner at the house of an old friend. We were sitting in the living room enjoying a glass of wine before eating when the smoke alarm suddenly activated. Apparently some grease on the stove had started to smoke.

“Well, the alarm did its job, didn’t it?” she said, laughing and filling up my glass again when she returned. “It’s amazing how annoying they are. You can’t ignore the alarm –you just can’t!”

I chuckled and told her about the BBC article I’d read about the alarm failing to rouse children.

The smile never left her face even when she had another a sip of her wine, but I could tell she was still thinking about what I’d said. “You know, that reminds me of something that happened when my son Jeremy was still around two years old…” She closed her eyes for a moment, savouring the memory. “We were over at my father’s cabin at the lake. Jeremy loved it there…” Her smile grew even larger and transformed her face. “It was so different from the city where we lived. Everything was new to him –the birds, the trees, the lake with Grampa’s little wooden rowing boat… He was usually so tired, it was no trouble getting him to go to bed at night. He slept in a little crib in my room, and rarely stirred even when I eventually came in to go to bed at night.

“Anyway one morning dad and I were sitting in the kitchen enjoying a cup of coffee while Jeremy was still asleep. He’d just installed a new smoke alarm because he used the fireplace a lot at night and I told him I was worried about the dangers of fire in a wooden cabin. I suppose he’d put it too close to the counter, or something, because when our toast began to burn, suddenly the alarm went off. The noise was so loud and high pitched it was painful and I had to cover my ears. I remember my heart started pounding and I actually felt faint.

“’The man at the store told me it’d wake me from a coma,’ dad said once he’d turned it off. ‘I’m surprised Jeremy isn’t crying.’

“Or out here,” I said. “Your crib is so low to the ground, I took the side off it so he could get out if he wanted.

“I went in to check on him right away; I’d left the bedroom door partially open when I’d gone into the kitchen, but he was still lying motionless in the crib like he does when he’s really asleep. I even remember standing at the door and watching him for a while –he was so adorable when he was sleeping…” She sighed and had another sip of her wine.

“I could see the gentle rising of his chest as he slept, so I knew he was okay. Dad started calling me from the kitchen to tell me my burnt toast was getting cold, and I can recall speaking Jeremy’s name in a normal tone of voice, telling him to wake up. Suddenly his eyes flickered then opened and a big warm smile filled his face…”

Martha turned her head to look at me, her eyes little sparrows flitting from cheek to nose and hovering over my face trying to decide where to land. “Do you think that’s what they were describing in the article?”

I smiled and added a tiny shrug. “A mother’s voice is so important, isn’t it?” I said, but realized as soon as the words emerged that it wasn’t a particularly profound observation.

She nodded her head and laughed. “Curious how my voice could wake him as a child but not as a teenager.”

“Who starves the ears she feeds and makes them hungry, the more she gives them speech…”

“Pardon me?” she said, giggling with the wine.

I enlarged the shrug. “Just a fragment of Shakespeare,” I said. “It means that noise isn’t as valuable as words… I’ve always wanted to use that quote.” I glanced at my own wine and smiled.

 

 

 

Let No One Put Asunder

At my age, I suppose I should have learned to expect the unexpected, to revel in the entrepreneurism of a new and alien generation, and to wonder at its ability to see opportunity in the predicaments of others. But then again, why not? Isn’t that what lawyers are all about? And doctors…? Where would we be without predicaments?

Alright, I accept that the approach may seem cheeky, or even downright calculating, but I have to say I sometimes admire the attempt –a Swedish hotel chain is ‘offering a refund to couples who get divorced within a year of staying at one of its places.’ http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-39382059 The idea being, apparently, ‘to encourage spouses to spend time together and work on their relationship’. And so, ‘It’s offering a “relationship guarantee” on mini-breaks at its hotels, so if things subsequently don’t work out and the marriage ends within a year, then the chain says it will reimburse the cost of a two-night stay’.

Of course, they’re not fools; nobody wants to be taken to the cleaners -they’re out to make a profit and, perhaps naively, figure that those who decide to vacation together for a while might not be that close to the brink. And, naturally, ‘There is some fine print: couples must be already married, stay in the same room and reference the relationship guarantee when booking. If they subsequently divorce and want to claim a refund, they have to submit court documents as evidence’.

I don’t know… At first glance, it might seem that they’re either very naïve, or really convinced they have an effective therapy -I mean, the divorce to marriage ratio in Sweden (2010, at least) was 47%. On second glance, however, the marriage rate in Sweden according to Eurostat Demographic Statistics –OECD Family Database (2014)- was only around 6 per 1000. So who, exactly, is sufficiently wide-eyed not to notice they may be on to something? I’m reminded of most private insurance agencies who offer great deals as long as you are low risk and have no major ongoing disabilities.

But it speaks to something larger, I think: the institute of marriage itself. Marriage is something which is incredibly difficult to define. In its simplest form, it is an officially sanctioned union between two people that affords legitimacy to any offspring and entails certain rights and responsibilities -and these vary from one society to another. In Western cultures it has been the religious –or secular (usually governmental)- authorities that are required to sanction and guarantee those issues. But in other societies, families, traditions, and deeply held beliefs often prescribe the boundaries, duties, and also the rights of each person in the relationship. Hence the cross-cultural misunderstandings and misgivings. We tend to ascribe the most legitimacy to that of the society in which we were raised.

Guilt, is not imposed, by and large, it is acquired -usually at a very early age- by deviating from the expectations of those we love and trust: our family, and immediate friends, bonds that link intimately with cultural and, often, religious beliefs. Sexual mores and intimacy are no exception -in fact, they are often the incentives offered by matrimony.

But marriage is becoming more popular recently, even in Sweden, with the ongoing influx of migrants from other cultures who were raised with different familial and religious obligations to which they feel they must adhere -obligations which may not be as easily dissolved, or as readily ignored as in the host country. After all, ‘Marriage is a matter of more worth than to be dealt in by attorneyship’ according to Shakespeare.

So is the hotel chain actually reading those trends, too? And are there other conditions –loopholes- that are not immediately apparent in their advertisements? Fine print? Exceptions? I don’t know, but I certainly wish them well. It’s a gamble on their part, to be sure… But I think I’d put my money in real estate, frankly.

Perhaps I’m just being far too cynical, though. Far too… divorced –there, I said it- but I’m willing to bet that they haven’t read the famous definition of how realistic are the expectations of marriage by none other than George Bernard Shaw in his preface to ‘Getting Married,’ 1908: ‘[W]hen two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition until death do them part’.

Pick your side on divorce and marriage, but they do seem to follow each other around and around like a tail the dog. I have to say, part of me is tempted to quote Samuel Johnston’s sarcasm (out of context) on the hotel chain’s promise -that it’s ‘The triumph of hope over experience’. And yet, when I stop to think of it, why not credit them with the courage of their conviction? Why not Alexander Pope’s ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’…?  After all, that’s what they’re trying to accomplish in those couples who stay with them… And that’s what we all hope for, isn’t it?

 

 

Cycling in a Dish

Where do they get this stuff? Menses in a dish –or, to be more academically abstruse, ‘A microfluidic culture model of the human reproductive tract and 28-day menstrual cycle’?

It has a pedantic ring to it, even though it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but I have to ask a simple, quasi-lay interrogative: why? Critical Thinking 101 –at least as they used to teach it- would demand to know why it is important that we make this model. If the answer is vague, or even unnecessarily complicated,  then one begins to suspect academic foppery.

The model is unique –I’ll give them that –let me refer to a succinct description of the model from a BBC News article: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-39421396 ‘The 3D model is made up of a series of cubes that each represent the different parts of the female reproductive system.

‘Each cube contains collections of living cells from the respective bits of this system – fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix and vagina (all human cells), and the ovaries (taken from mice).

‘The cubes are connected together with small tubes, which allow special fluid to flow through the entire system, much like blood.

‘This also means the “mini organs” can communicate with each other using hormones, mimicking what happens in a woman’s body during a “typical” 28-day human menstrual cycle.

‘Tests suggested that the tissues in the system responded to the cyclical ebb and flow of hormones, in a similar way to those of the female body.’

At first, I have to admit, I was skeptical of the need for the model –and yes, I was inclined to see it as foppery. But when I actually read the paper (http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14584) I was impressed. Why not just obtain the same cells from, say, hysterectomy specimens, grow them, and subject them to whatever hormones or chemicals you pick to study? It quickly became evident that there are two types of scientists: clinical, and laboratory –as a practicing doctor, I’m afraid I fall squarely into the clinical end, and never the twain shall meet… The reason became all too clear as I continued to read.

First of all, as they explain in the introduction, ‘Preclinical studies often begin with individual cells, separated from cellular and physical contacts that are important for biological function. These dispersed cells must be propagated through weekly reduction divisions and maintained on flat plastic; however, these cells are missing the cell physicochemical microenvironment, three-dimensional (3D) tissue-specific architecture, and blood flow perfusion found in natural tissues.’ In other words, they take a long time to grow and aren’t subject to the same environment they would have in the body (i.e. in vivo).

Secondly, what is used to perfuse them may not have the same effect as the blood circulation they would receive in vivo: ‘typical media composition is based on basal nutrients, bovine serum and a few specialized factors that are placed in a static setting with random mixing. As a consequence, cell–cell and tissue-level cytokine and endocrine signals are not integrated into signalling pathways.’

So not only can delicate organs be assessed as if they were still in the body (like the rhythmic beating of the hair cells that line the Fallopian tubes –cilia), but the effects of different pharmaceuticals could be safely tested in the model before expensive clinical trials were undertaken. ‘Despite large investments in research funding, only ∼8% of drugs for which Investigational New Drug applications have been filed will be approved by the FDA.’

I have to say that I am intrigued, and not a little embarrassed that I was put off by the title of the article. Perhaps to expiate that guilt a little, I mentioned it to Ted, a –I hesitate to say ‘older’- colleague of mine that I met for lunch the other day.

We are both retired now so, apart from our similar past histories, talk heads more towards hobbies and bowels, than to scientific literature. I’m not even sure how it came up, except that his niece was trying –unsuccessfully, it seems- to conceive and his sister had phoned him for advice. She had mentioned several chemicals she’d discovered in an online search –both as potential therapies, as well as putative endocrine disruptors. She wanted to know what Ted thought.

“So what do you think?” he asked me as he carefully cut his hamburger in quarters so he could manage the entry problems. “You retired a couple of years after me…” he added, as if that meant that I was a couple of years smarter than him –or at least a bit more up to date.

“Ted, you know as well as I do that it’s dangerous to speculate on the effects of chemicals on human pregnancies. There are too many variables, too many potential effects that may not show up till birth, or even later…”

He nodded. “I remember DES for threatened first term miscarriages and the later damage to reproductive anatomy -not to mention the clear-cell cancers of the vagina that didn’t show up till years later…”

“Or thalidomide for morning sickness in pregnancies…” I added solemnly.

He nodded thoughtfully and after carefully picking out shreds of lettuce that were hiding under the bun, attempted to cram a freshly-cut piece of the hamburger into his waiting mouth, but it leaked somewhere south of his lips. “They can’t even design a portable hamburger,” he said, unsure whether to laugh or blush. He wiped his face, picked up the meat, and then searched for more hidden pieces of lettuce and placed them on his plate.

When he noticed me watching his lettuce hunt, he shrugged. “I’ve always hated lettuce,” he explained. “So does my niece for that matter. Probably hereditary,” he mumbled and then licked his fingers, contritely. “I mean, look,” he said with a crooked smile on his face, “I solved this problem using in vitro techniques.” And he held up his now-clean fingers and licked his lips in embarrassed satisfaction. “There’s gotta be a way to test these drugs without endangering a pregnancy. Mice and rats are not humans and you can’t safely extrapolate the results to us.”

“Amen,” I said, shaking my head sadly. We’d had similar discussions over the years, so I suspect he was merely venting his frustrations again.

We sat in silence for a moment while he tried to improve his in vitro technique, as he insisted on calling it.

“You know, Ted,” I said after it looked as if his practice runs at the lettuce were failing, “I did read about an in vitro way being developed for safely testing things in women. It was in the journal Nature and entitled something like ‘Microfluidic culture model of the human reproductive tract’. I’m not sure they could adapt it to pregnancies, but maybe it might be helpful in seeing what effects drugs or other chemicals could have on reproductive cells in the events leading up to a pregnancy…” I tried to remember more. “And it seems to me they were even able to replicate a 28 day menstrual cycle…”

His eyebrows shot up, and then one stayed elevated, as if scotch-taped to his forehead. “Micro fluidic what…? My god, is your retirement that bad?”

I think I blushed –he made it sound as if I’d been caught downloading porn. “Uhmm, it’s called ‘body on a chip’, or something –or at least this part is…”

He suddenly turned his attention to the chips still languishing on his plate and smiled. “Thanks for the excuse,” he said. Obviously his wife or maybe Chrissie, his sister, had warned him not to order them, let alone eat them.

“Yeah, I gather that the idea, eventually, is to be able to take cells from somebody who needs a particular treatment and test those cells in the model with various chemicals to see what happens.” It seemed quite exciting to me.

“Mmmh,’ he said, polishing off the last of his fries, while the puzzled lettuceal remnants stared at him from the plate. “I don’t think I can tell Chrissie about it, though.”

I looked up from my napkin and cocked my head. “Why not, Ted? Wouldn’t she find it interesting?”

He rested his head on his hands and peered at me as if he were looking over a pair of bifocals like a professor with a sleepy student. “She’d be on Craigslist trying to buy one as soon as she got off the phone… In fact she’d probably try for a matching set –a male one as well as a female one,” he added when I stared at him.

I must have still looked puzzled, because he smiled and picked up a piece of lettuce. “Chrissie’s a dietician and she thinks her daughter has a terrible diet… and she certainly remembers mine,” he explained, shaking his head. “She’d be trying to feed this to the model to prove her point.” He sighed. “I’d never hear the end of it…”

I suddenly realized I’d not thought about it that deeply. He’s right, maybe the ‘body on a chip’ thing needs a bit more work before they advertise it on Facebook…

The Stealing Steps of Age

Elderspeak. We’ve all heard it: baby-talk for seniors, an almost unconscious reaction to those we deem cognitively impaired, or hopelessly out of date. It’s a kind of pretend-communication with those who seem unreceptive, or beyond the pale of verbal comprehension.

Although the term is aptly descriptive and eerily evocative of rows of beds with wrinkled heads whose staring eyes peek out from where their bodies are tucked, I have to admit I had not heard the word before seeing an article in the CBC News. It described a study published in The Gerontologist about the way a group of nuns cared for their elderly colleagues from their convent: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/nuns-elderly-1.4039508

‘The sisters caring for cognitively impaired elderly nuns in a Midwestern convent spoke to their care recipients in a way that sounded strikingly different to linguistic anthropologist Anna Corwin. The nuns rarely used “elderspeak” — a loud, slow, simple, patronizing and common form of baby talk for seniors. Instead, Corwin reports, they told jokes, stories and blessed the sick nuns, all the while speaking to them like they were completely capable, even though their ability to communicate was significantly diminished.’

‘The nuns in the infirmary suffered from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, aphasia, stroke and neurological deterioration, and all had limited or impaired communication abilities. Sometimes the caregiver nuns held the sick nuns’ hands, and sometimes they massaged their legs, Corwin said.’

It all sounds so… sensible. So empathetic. And yet, so often we are frustrated by our apparent inability to effectively communicate that elderspeak becomes a sort of default –almost as if those to whom we are speaking are not really listening, or, depending on their condition, are minimally aware of our presence. And this can be especially prevalent among overworked care providers in geriatric wards.

‘Kristine Williams, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing in Kansas City, trains nursing home providers to use less elderspeak. Her studies found that communication training can reduce the number of diminutives, terms of endearments and collective pronouns senior caregivers use.’ But training to do what?

The nuns offer an interesting option. ‘The caregiver nuns had long-established deep relationships with their elder charges, Williams noted. “They are in almost a family-like relationship, as opposed to someone who’s a nursing assistant in a home,” she said.’ And what they offered, was not condescension or inadvertent humiliation. Not patronage or mere toleration. ‘”They see these older adults, even when they’re lying in bed moaning and can’t move, as not being reduced by these chronic conditions but still as whole individuals.”’

The study was an interesting one, and yet its findings should not surprise us. ‘Beauty doth varnish age, as if newborn, and gives the crutch the cradle’s infancy’ as Shakespeare said. In other words, finding beauty in old age can transform it and make it bearable –in this case both for the aged as well as the caregiver.

Now that I think about it, I suspect I learned that years ago when I was a beginning medical student and visiting my aunt Shirley who was hospitalized after a stroke. She was stored –that’s the only word to describe it- in an older part of an already-old hospital on a ward –a large room, really- lined on both walls with beds like a dormitory. And for the most part, as I described above, all one could see looking down the rows were heads peeking out from neatly tucked bedsheets, white hair splayed across the pillows or stuck to the scalp with sweat. Some had eyes that moved, but mostly it was a room of mouths –none speaking, all busy with just the chore of breathing.

Shirley was one of the exceptions, propped as she was by a series of pillows and a cloth bib whose tethers kept her from tipping over the bed railings and onto the floor. Her voice was slurred and indistinct, so I had trouble hearing what she had to say, but I could tell she was getting better because she was complaining about the woman in the bed next to hers.

“There’s nothing there,” she kept saying, her eyes pointed at the head beside her that was staring, unblinking, at the ceiling. “They’ve put me in an empty room, dear, and I don’t like it.”

My aunt had always been gregarious, some might even say nosy, so to be confined to a room where she couldn’t extract vital gossip and life histories, was a type of exile for her. A punishment.

“You seem to have improved each time I come here,” I said, trying to cheer her up. For my part, the ward depressed me. “They’re obviously treating you well,” I added, quickly running out of small talk.

Part of her mouth smiled, but most of her face seemed still asleep. Not at all happy.

“Your aunt is improving, sir,” a soft voice said from behind me.

I turned and saw a short, smiling, grey-haired nurse dressed in white trousers and a white shirt buttoned up to his neck. His eyes were twinkling, and he was gazing at my aunt as if he, too, was proud of what she’d accomplished. There weren’t very many male nurses then, so I was surprised. “I expect they’ll be transferring you to another ward, soon, Shirl,” he added locking her eyes in his and ignoring me for a moment. “So quit complaining, eh?” He chuckled when he saw her smile broaden and the rest of her face follow suit. He reached out and squeezed her toe through the sheet and wandered off to check on the next bed. Shirley giggled, obviously pleased.

I could hear the nurse talking to that unresponsive woman in the next bed, although he spoke quietly. First, he tilted his head to stare at the ceiling above her bed. Then, he smiled. “You know, Liz, I figure you must have much better eyes than me…” He liberated a skeletal arm whose flesh hung from it like curtains on a window and held it tenderly. “…Because no matter how often I look, I still can’t see whatever it is that you find so interesting up there.” He gently squeezed her hand. “We’re gonna have to discuss this over a beer someday, eh?”

Her face didn’t change, but her breathing seemed a little less laboured. A little slower. More even. “Anyway, is there anything you need me to help you with today?” he said as he ever so gently massaged her arm then flexed and relaxed her fingers. When he’d finished with that arm, he tucked it under the sheets again and repeated the exercise on the other. “I’m going to come back and move you into a different position in a few minutes, Liz, so don’t get too comfortable like that, eh?” He loosened the sheets around her and raised the railings around the bed again that guarded her from falling. “And I’m going to make sure that physiotherapist you like comes with me to massage your legs.” He winked at her flirtatiously and gave her leg a squeeze through the sheet.

“He might as well be talking to the pillow,” Shirley whispered, as he busied himself with the railing. “All she does is stare at the ceiling. She doesn’t seem to notice when I talk to her…”

“So wait for me, Liz. I don’t want to have to go looking all over the ward for you again,” he said, laughing, and wandered off to yet another bed.

“I do like Bill,” Shirley said when he was out of earshot. “He treats us all like family –like we matter.” She was silent for a moment and then, just when I was about to leave, she managed to snag me with her good hand. “But I don’t know how he stays so cheerful here. I think half of the patients don’t even know he’s talking to them.” And her eyes wandered over to the woman in the next bed again. “It must be terribly discouraging for him, don’t you think?”

I glanced at the woman, and for a moment, I thought I saw her eyes flicker as if they were searching for something. Someone. And then, a tear? But maybe it was just a trick of the light, because, as her face relaxed a tiny bit, they closed and she began to snore. Not loudly, not as if she couldn’t breathe –but quietly, comfortably, and slipped from the waking dream, into yet another more peaceful one further inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the wheel has come full circle…

What’s it like to live on the other side? As far as I can tell, I’m neither trans nor bi; I do not have any genderqueer feelings or aspirations, and for as many years as I’ve been in this body, I’ve been happy with my gender assignation. I’m merely curious about things I have not experienced –about things that I am not, I suppose. Is a rose by another name really the same -really a rose as we have come to experience it? Or would it be more appropriate to phrase it as the converse: does calling something else a rose, make it a rose? Even if it feels it is? It begs the question ‘what is a rose’, doesn’t it? And is the answer –even culturally contextualized- relative, temporal, or in fact, meaningless? Perhaps for someone invested in linguistic definitional stability, the idea of reassigning nouns is more confusing than helpful –notwithstanding the in-your-face examples of homophones and homographs… But I think it is worth exploring.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, argued that naming the Divine -and therefore essentially defining­ it- confined what that concept meant, limited it. I can see parallels with gender appreciation and denotation. But this is certainly problematic for many of my generation who seem to be invested in the immutability of anatomically assigned gender –or perhaps merely question the wisdom of reallocating something that already is, to something it does not appear to be…

Confusing? An interregnum usually is. When those things to which we have become accustomed are swept aside –or, more disturbingly, simply ignored as if their validity had always been in question- there is often a feeling that some moral law has been violated. An ethical boundary crossed. No matter that the boundaries were themselves arbitrary, templates from a different paradigm, to borrow from Kuhn –a different time. It’s not so much that they were wrong, as that they saw the world from a different perspective –much like we might view the customs of another country as being quaint, if not inimical. But, hopefully, when analyzed carefully, there are usually negotiable commonalities. Values which transcend differences, attitudes which, on reflection, are not that hard to accept. Not that different from those we had come to trust.

So, in time, the misgivings fade, and it becomes not only uncomfortable to deviate from the new norm, but to wonder how we had ever thought otherwise –the subtle memory readjustment that neuroscientists tell us occur with time and circumstance.

Many years ago when I first opened my specialist practice in gynaecology, attitudes were different from today. I was asked to consult on conditions that would now be referred to sub-specialists –doctors who have gained added expertise in specific fields. But in those distant times, we were left to deal with things we had never seen in our training as best we could.

It’s when I first met Jo. There were few computers then; my day sheet was typed and the name seemed to have been left purposely vague. But Jo sat straight and proud in the chair, anything but vague -beautiful, in fact. Dressed in a full-length light blue dress, and large, dangling earrings, I wondered how she avoided getting the slowly swaying waves of her long black hair entangled. I could see her bright brown eyes following a little diapered baby crawling erratically across the rug, both of them smiling at each other, both of them obviously delighting in the moment, however fleeting. Another newly pregnant mother, I thought, although in those days, my day sheet was just a list of names and times of appointment –no other details.

Her eyes lit up when she saw me coming across the floor to greet her, and a warm smile surfaced on her face as if it had been carefully wrapped and stored for just this occasion. For me.

I led her into my office down the hall and showed her a seat across from my desk. I have to admit I was smiling broadly by that stage as well –her face was contagious. “So what can I do for you today, Jo?” I started. I hadn’t yet learned the value of the small-talk that often helps to dispel the initial anxiety before having to confront the reason for the visit.

For a brief moment, her smile disappeared, and her eyes examined the window beside her. “I guess my doctor’s note didn’t arrive…” She summoned her eyes and promptly dropped them in her lap. The smile tried to reassume it’s command of her lips, but I could see it was having some difficulty. “It’s a bit complicated,” she said, shooing her eyes from her lap.

I smiled, picked up a pen from the desk and opened her chart to show that I didn’t mind. That I would judge just how complicated it was. It was then that I saw the note from her GP.

But before I could read it, I could feel her gaze leaning heavily on me so I looked up. I remember her expression was almost pleading with me to listen –not write.  Begging me to understand. I put the pen down and leaned forward in my seat.

“I…” she hesitated, clearly wondering how to begin. Wondering if the explanation she had memorized would suffice. “…I’m not what I seem, doctor,” she said, her voice trembling slightly.

I said nothing; I sensed it was a time for silence, even though I had not yet learned its value.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been what I seemed… But I’m 23 now, and I realize that I can’t live like this.”

I watched her face slowly dissolve into tears, so I reached for the tissues I kept on the desk, and handed her one.

She accepted it with a wrinkled smile she found somewhere and wiped her cheeks. “Sorry,” she said, the smile disappearing again despite her efforts to pin it to her lips. “It’s just that my GP didn’t know what to do with me. He said he didn’t know anybody who could help –apparently there’s nobody here in Vancouver…” She took a deep stertorous breath and grabbed another tissue from my desk. “Anyway he said you might know more about it.” Her eyes suddenly perched on my cheeks and stared at me. Through me, as if my eyes were only guardians of the doors into my head. “I’m a man, doctor…”

She –he– waited to see how I would react. She –I couldn’t help but regard Jo as a ‘she’- had obviously had uncomfortable reactions to the revelation in the past. And I couldn’t disguise my expression, I’m afraid –this was not a time of social media or tolerance of any egregious flaunting of norms. Homosexuality was beginning to evince some token acceptance in many circles, perhaps, but transsexuality was still felt to be beyond the pale. Cross-dressing was a deviance that needed to be closeted away.

Jo shrugged and sank further into her seat, as if my reaction had somehow punctured her only hope. “You know, I’m only Jo, doctor. I’m really no different from the person you met in the waiting room… I want to be that woman you greeted so innocently.” Her eyes sought mine again, like supplicants before a judge.

But in that moment, I could not judge. She was the Jo I had first met moments before –the delightful woman in the waiting room engaging with the trusting toddler. “I know,” I said with a reassuring smile, my heart taking over my words. “Let me see what I can do to help.”

And with that simple acknowledgement, Jo straightened in her chair again, her eyes alive as she adjusted an errant strand of hair that had wandered onto her now hopeful face.

Sometimes, there are surprises in all of us just waiting to be discovered.

Zealandia?

Sometimes things are not as they seem and we see, as the biblical Paul wrote, ‘through a glass darkly’. Sometimes there is more than meets the eye; it is what makes the world so interesting. Maybe it’s why we wrap gifts –or give them, for that matter. They are such stuff as dreams are made on…

I have always loved New Zealand; to me, it is a gift, and so is what I’ve recently learned about its origins. To think that Aotearoa –the land of the long white cloud- is more than the ribbon I can see today, more than the Maori seafarers could see even a thousand years ago when they first arrived, is astonishing, and not a little intriguing. An article in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/17/zealandia-pieces-finally-falling-together-for-long-overlooked-continent?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other) reports on a paper published in GSA Today -the journal of the Geological Society of America: ‘Zealandia covers nearly 5m square km, of which 94% is under water, and encompasses not only New Zealand but also New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, the Lord Howe Island group and Elizabeth and Middleton reefs. The area, about the same size as the Indian subcontinent, is believed to have broken away from Gondwana – the immense landmass that once encompassed Australia – and sank between 60m and 85m years ago.’

Of course, even with satellite-derived bathymetric data, it’s hard to appreciate. And the skeptics, largely silent in their apathy, still sit in the shadows wondering what difference knowing  this  makes. After all, it’s almost all underwater, some of it way underwater –one edge of it ‘can be placed where the oceanic abyssal plains meet the base of the continental slope, at water depths between 2500 and 4000 m below sea level.’ http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/27/3/article/GSATG321A.1.htm Would we be any the worse, the unimpressed might argue, if this remained undetected? Would the ignorance handicap us in some way? Any way…?

In the conclusion to the paper, the authors assert that: ‘As well as being the seventh largest geological continent Zealandia is the youngest, thinnest, and most submerged. The scientific value of classifying Zealandia as a continent is much more than just an extra name on a list. That a continent can be so submerged yet unfragmented makes it a useful and thought-provoking geodynamic end member in exploring the cohesion and breakup of continental crust.’ But it seems to me that questioning the value of this discovery misses the point entirely. Misses, perhaps, the point of gifts and the wrapping in which they are concealed.

Although I am now retired, I am reminded of something that happened late in my career as a gynaecologist and which continues to intrigue me. It makes me wonder just how many other assumptions limit our vision…

Sometimes in medicine, we feel the need to step back from the fray, to attempt an objectivity denied to those whom we treat. It allows us, we explain, to adopt another, more reasoned perspective -one which is unadulterated by their pain and emotion. ‘A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom’ as Hamlet said.

And yet, looking out from the forest of my age, I realize that sometimes people don’t want to be treated as patients, but as people. Fellow travelers. What they want is a knowledgeable friend, not a textbook to which they can turn. One has to learn to gauge the needs…

Jean was not a new patient, but her visits were erratic and unpredictable. Sometimes it was for a pap smear, but more frequently it was for what she would only characterize as an ‘infection’ –“The usual one,” she would inevitably add with an embarrassed laugh. But neither I, nor any of the other doctors she had seen were ever able to find the infection, so it had become a sort of standing challenge as to who would find it first.

Jean was a very fit woman then in her early fifties, who taught both English and drama at a nearby high school. Meticulous about her appearance, I would see her in the waiting room sitting bolt upright, shoulders back, head perched on her shoulders like it was suspended on fine wires to keep it from despoiling the immaculately dressed body below. Her hair was brown and short with each strand assigned an immoveable location lest it be chastened with the brush she kept on her lap in a little purse.

That day, however, I noticed she had added another weapon to the arsenal on her lap –a little pump action plastic bottle, the content of which she would surreptitiously spray on her hands from time to time, followed by a vigorous rubbing as if she had just applied some soothing lotion.

She smiled when she saw me and extended a just-sprayed hand in greeting. “I think I’ve solved my problem, doctor,” she said as soon as we were settled in my office. “I just wanted you to check and see if there was any difference –you know, down…” She blushed before she could finish her sentence. She immediately produced the little bottle and sprayed her hands again. “No infection,” she added, regaining her composure after the little entr’acte.

“And the little bottle?” I had to ask.

“Sanitizer,” she answered proudly. “It’s antibacterial,” she added, and dived into the purse to read the label to me. “It contains triclosan… For some reason it’s really  hard to get nowadays.” Her face suggested that puzzled her. “I mean it kills bacteria doesn’t it? And they’re the troublemakers…”

I suppressed a sigh and sat back in my chair. “It also encourages bacterial resistance, Jean. And it doesn’t seem to be any more effective at cleaning than good old soap and water.”

She blinked, but whether in surprise, or disbelief I couldn’t tell. “But…” She gathered her thoughts before continuing. “We pick up bacteria from our environment and dirty hands are how we transmit a lot of diseases. We have to keep them clean… Bacteria” –she said it as if the word itself were dirty- “Bacteria are everywhere.” She pointed to an alcohol-based hand sanitizer I kept on my desk. “And I see you don’t take any chances either. ”She relaxed in her chair as if she’d proved her point.

I allowed myself the sigh I had avoided earlier. “An interesting dichotomy, isn’t it?” She raised an eyebrow. “That we live in a world jam-packed with so many bacteria that they are virtually ubiquitous…” I continued, “…and yet so few cause us trouble.”

“But…” She leaned forward on her seat.

“But we seem to want to malign them all; we act as if they were all our enemies. And yet, our own microbiome –the bacteria living in our intestines- are absolutely essential for our health in ways we are just discovering. And apparently the number of bacteria normally living in and on a healthy human body outnumber our own cells by ten to one.” I stopped and smiled at her incredulous expression. “We –our cells- are only the tip of the iceberg.”

I suppose I thought I’d just be reminding her of something she already knew, but her eyes were saucers. “Zealandia,” she said after a moment’s reflection.

“Pardon me?” I’d never heard the word, and wondered whether she was referring to the title of some obscure novel she was teaching at school.

“Zealandia,” she repeated as if she were surprised I didn’t recognize the term. “You know, doctor, the continental landmass of which New Zealand is a part? It’s 95% underwater so you can’t see it and therefore don’t appreciate it’s importance. We usually only judge what we can see, don’t we…?” she added with a wink and a big winning smile.

We all have our blind spots.