For my Pains, a World of Sighs

What does pain look like? An intriguing question to be sure, but one I hadn’t even thought to ask until recently. Pain is one of those things that, like St. Augustine’s quandary over Time, presents a similar difficulty in defining. The International Association for the Study of Pain made a stab at it: ‘Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage,’ but somehow, it seems to lack the immediacy of its subject matter –it stands, like an observer, outside the issue. Poets have done a better job, I think. Emily Dickinson, for example: After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs’; or Kahlil Gibran: ‘pain is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self’; or even Oscar Wilde: ‘Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask.

But I was reminded of another of Wilde’s observations -‘We who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow, have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter moments.’- when I read a CBC article from November, 2016 entitled ‘Indigenous children, stoic about their pain, are drawn out with art’ http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/aboriginal-youth-art-pain-hurt-healing-1.3852646

‘”Aboriginal children feel and experience pain just like anyone else. It’s just that they express their pain very differently,” said John Sylliboy, community research co-ordinator with the Aboriginal Children’s Hurt and Healing Initiative.

‘”They don’t necessarily verbalize their pain, or they don’t express it outwardly through crying or through pain grimaces,” he told CBC News.’

‘These children are socialized to be stoic about their pain, to hold in their pain.’- Margot Latimer, Centre for Pediatric Pain Research, IWK Health Centre in Halifax. ‘”We noticed we weren’t seeing any First Nations youth referred to our pain clinic at the IWK hospital and wondered why that was so.”‘ It didn’t make sense, she thought — especially since research shows that chronic illness in First Nations communities is almost three times higher than in the general population. Aboriginal children are especially vulnerable, says Latimer, with higher rates of dental pain, ear infections, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.’

I found it very moving, and yet disturbing, that ‘[…] cultural traditions, and lingering effects from the residential school system, are some of the reasons Indigenous kids pull on their suit of armour against pain and hurt.’ But they’re children, and perhaps not yet completely shackled to all the subtleties of culture. ‘A group of Indigenous children and teenagers from four First Nations communities in the Maritimes were asked to paint their pain, to express their hurt through art. Researchers were hoping to tease out emotions from a population more inclined to show resilience to pain.’ But soon after, the children began to depict not just physical pain, but emotional pain as well. As Sylliboy points out, ‘”These kids told us about loneliness, sadness, darkness, bullying, hopelessness. It’s not the typical anxiety [or] depression. It is more complex than that.” “To these clinicians who are just asking about physical pain and not looking at emotional pain as well, it is important, because Aboriginal kids are showing us that there is no difference between emotional and physical pain”, said Sylliboy. “It’s just pain.”‘

And I learned another thing about pain –or maybe about children – ‘It’s all about creating a safe space for the children when they come to the hospital, says Latimer.  She says it’s about learning a bit about them and gaining their trust. “When they come to the health centre, or a physician or a nurse practitioner, they want to tell their story, but we do not train health professionals to assess pain that way.”’

It reminded me of a patient I first met in the Emergency Department at the hospital when I was the gynaecologist on call one night. Edie, an aboriginal woman arrived with heavy bleeding –she was  apparently in the throes of miscarrying an early pregnancy- and had brought her eight year old son to the hospital because she had no one to take care of him at home. The bleeding settled shortly after her arrival and an ultrasound in the department revealed that there was no further tissue left in the uterus, so fortunately we didn’t have to take her to the operating room. But the process of diagnosis and decision was not instantaneous. Although the little boy, Timmy, was clearly frightened, his face stayed neutral. And yet it seemed as if he was peeking through hole in a fence, and I could see his eyes carefully following my every move. One of the nurses volunteered to sit with him in the waiting room while I examined his mother, but I was the last one he stared at before leaving; I was the thing he didn’t understand.

I decided to let Edie rest on the stretcher for a while before discharge, and I thought I’d reassure Timmy before I left. He was sitting on the too-big chair as quietly and unmoving as an adult and when I approached, he stared at me like a deer hiding in a forest.

“Your mom’s going to be okay, Timmy,” I said with a big smile.

But he still seemed just as frightened, and stayed silent for a moment. “There was blood on her pants,” he mumbled, perhaps making sure I’d noticed. He allowed his eyes to venture out further into the open and he examined me again. “And she was hurting…”

What do you tell a little boy about his mother’s suffering? I knelt down on one knee in front of him so our eyes were on the same level and put a hand on his knee. I couldn’t  think of anything else to do. “She’s not hurting now, Timmy,” I said and smiled again.

He looked at my hand and then he finally smiled. “Can she go home now?” When I nodded, he reached out and carefully touched one of my fingers, and then when I didn’t pull away, he patted my hand.

I never saw little Timmy again, but a few weeks later, Edie came to my office for a follow-up visit and to thank me for seeing her in the hospital in the middle of the night. “Timmy was really impressed,” she said and smiled. She ruffled through her purse and brought out a rumpled piece of paper she’d nonetheless folded carefully. “He drew this for you, doctor,” she said proudly, and handed it to me.

When I opened it up, it was a drawing of a hand in red crayon.

“He said it was to thank you…” She seemed embarrassed, and hesitated before continuing. “I asked him why he drew it in red…” she said.

She still seemed embarrassed, so I stayed silent until she felt ready to continue.

Edie studied me for a moment with her big brown eyes, still uncertain. Then her face relaxed and a big smile appeared. “He said maybe you were one of us, now…”

I could have cried.

Baa Baa Black Sheep…

Okay, I’ll admit I’m intrigued by investigations that attempt to prove things the rest of us simply take for granted. Things that seem so obvious, that I wonder why they ever extracted them from the background for analysis. When you live in a forest, why would you single out a tree?

Do babies do better when they are loved? I can’t even imagine the need to ask that question, but I suppose we only see the world through the filter of the prevailing ethos of our society. It was not so very long ago, for example, that the psychologist Harry Harlow devised an experiment that, although cruel to contemporary eyes, was an honest attempt to explore what it is that infants need. He separated infant monkeys from their mothers and placed them in isolation in little cages. He then gave them a choice between a metal dummy holding a bottle of milk, or a soft, fuzzy cloth dummy without milk. And, no surprise, the babies chose the soft cloth dummy so they could cling to it. A mother is more than a source of food –much more.

An article in the BBC news last year caught my eye. It posited ‘[…]that babies need to feel safe, secure and loved for brain connections to be properly formed to enable them to learn effectively.’ http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38002105

This was suggested by a study from Cambridge University in England that utilized brain scans. The researchers scanned the brains of babies and their mothers while the two were interacting in learning activities. ‘The early indications are that when the brain waves of mothers and babies are out of sync, the babies learn less well. But when the two sets of brainwaves are in tune they seem to learn more effectively. Dr Victoria Leong, who is leading the research, has discovered that babies learn well when their mums speak to them in a soothing sing-song voice which she calls “motherese”. Dr Leong’s research shows that nursery rhymes are a particularly good way for the mums in her study to get in sync with their babies.’

Fascinating, but taking it even further, ‘[…] babies respond better when there is prolonged eye contact. Mums who sang nursery rhymes looking directly at their babies held their attention significantly better than those who gazed away, even occasionally.’

I recognize how important it might seem to subject the intuitively obvious to some form of scientific scrutiny –just in case, as it were- and I am all for it. Who would dare question what is plain to see and even easier to hear every day in my waiting room? Certainly not me. But sometimes I am, well, surprised at the venue.

I first met Janice in the delivery suite late one night when I was the obstetrician on call. The midwife was concerned about the progress of labour and had asked me to consult on her client. After examining Janice, I had reassured them both and counselled patience and then, with smiles all around, had left to attend to other matters. The midwife later informed me that she delivered a healthy baby boy only a few minutes after I’d left, and so I assumed I’d probably never see Janice again.

So I was surprised when, a month or so later, Janice showed up in my waiting room. At first I didn’t recognize her, but she was singing to her baby and the voice sounded familiar. It’s funny how some things seem inextricably linked to people –a mannerism for one, or a facial expression for another… For Janice, it was undoubtedly her voice. As a small, even petite, woman, I suppose my expectation would be for her sound to match –thin, soft, fragile, perhaps- but like the Pacific wren, the volume far exceeded the source. As did the duration and enthusiasm with which she serenaded her infant. In fact I stood, in thrall, just behind the front desk, not wanting to interrupt her song by inviting her into my office.

Eventually, and not without some concern about interfering with the obvious bonding process, but seeing the baby snuggled contentedly in her arms with his eyes closed, I decided to intervene.

“Janice,” I said, walking over to where she was sitting, and the baby seemed to stir.

She knifed me with her eyes, and a finger flew to her lips to caution me to be silent. She wound down the nursery rhyme slowly and deliberately, all the while gazing intently at her sleeping baby. She seemed to be assessing his breathing pattern and only when she had decided that it accorded with her expectations did she rise and follow me into my office down the hall. I could tell by her subsequent shrug that she hadn’t meant to be rude, or to keep me waiting, but was merely trying to stay in sync with her sleeping infant. That, of course, was fine with me –it’s hard to talk with a patient when her baby is crying.

She settled in a chair by my desk almost by brail; she was so intent on her baby, her eyes never left his face. “I’ve just fed him,” she explained with a smile that only caressed the infant, so I’m not sure whether I was supposed to share. “I think he’ll sleep now,” she added with another misdirected smile.

I decided to respond with a smile of my own, this one directed at Janice, however –a sort of ‘teach by example’, I suppose.

But before it even reached her, the baby opened his eyes and stared quietly at his mother, contentment written across his face like a tattoo. It immediately galvanized her into action, however, and she began to sing another nursery rhyme and rock him in her arms. He obviously enjoyed it and stared lovingly into her eyes as if there were no other reality. No other world. He seemed to be spellbound by the endlessly repeated ‘Baa baa black sheep’ song although after a few minutes, I have to say I became more interested in the rhythmic, hypnotic nodding of her head and felt myself occasionally fighting to focus my eyes.

I began to wonder what the end point of her singing would be. The baby seemed content, he wasn’t crying, or squirming and yet on and on she sang. I tried a few times, unsuccessfully, to ask her why she had come to visit me in the office; the midwife usually follows her clients post-partum unless there is a problem. But each time I spoke, the baby would open his eyes, and Janice would risk a quick glare at me and resume rocking him with yet another song.

Finally, she stood up and looked at me with an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry, doctor,” she said, heading for the door. “I just can’t seem to settle him today… I’ll have to make another appointment,” she added before launching into ‘Three Blind Mice.’

As she disappeared down the hall, and the song faded into the distance, I realized I never did discover why she’d been sent to see me. But I felt grateful for that final smile, however. Sometimes it’s the little things that matter…

 

Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.

What is a friend? I think I could parallel St. Augustine’s answer about Time: ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.’ Friendship is such a universal concept, such an acknowledged need, I’m not sure why it is difficult to define. Perhaps it is so much a part of our Umwelt that the only aspect of it that becomes consciously discernible is its absence. It is our air…

But of late, it seems to me that its meaning has been further eroded, further diluted, by its use in social media. It is now a verb as well as a noun –all well and good if we are willing to enrol people as friends much as we might solicit them to join a political party, or consider anybody that smiles at us as worthy of the designation.

Obviously, friendship is a spectrum and simply because we use the same word to designate the entire range does not reveal much about the meaning or the importance of its constituents to us. In a sense, if used generically and without a more descriptive adjective, the word is an empty shell –‘Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ as Macbeth said of Life. And that life is actually not so full of friends -‘Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.’ to quote Macbeth out of context once again. We do not have as many friends as we think –nor is it even possible to sustain the emotional effort necessary to acquire and succour more than five, or so, close friends. http://nyti.ms/2baJQPL

So, I suspect we should be careful how we use the term and in what context –for what purpose. The number of ‘friends’ we think we have are akin to the denominator of a fraction. It’s the numerator –the number of close friends- that determine the size. The value… I would have thought this was so obvious as to be almost trite. Uninteresting. But maybe the idea that a friend is someone requiring at the very least, an ongoing personal, non-virtual, interaction is a generational thing. Am I just having a semantic argument with myself; am I merely a Cassandra unable to understand that it is only my opinion that is being contested, and that its tenets have already been superseded? Food for thought…

And yet, there are consequences. Sometimes it is best to check in the rear-view mirror from time to time.

*

I’ve always liked Jennifer. She is a twenty-something year old woman I have known for several years now. I first met her because of a minor abnormality of her pap smear, and have seen her every year or so since then. I think she sits in the same place in the waiting room each time, too; I always associate her with the seat in the corner by the window –the one partially hidden by the Areca palm. She’s a small person, and her never-varying outfit of jeans and sweatshirt seem to blend beautifully with the green of the plant. Even her dark, shoulder-length hair sometimes resembles the type of shadow I imagine the plant would cast if it could… I don’t know why I think that; maybe because they’re both quiet. Both still. Both background.

The other day when I saw her in her usual spot, she was typing away furiously on her cell phone. She looked on edge, and the troubled expression did not disappear even when she saw me smile and walk across the carpet to greet her.

There’s often an easy-to-spot anxiety in some patients –the kind I usually can’t hide when the dentist ushers me into his chair- but I knew Jennifer, and the referral note just said she was back for a repeat pap smear.

“You look worried today, Jennifer,” I said when we were both seated in my office. “Are you concerned about the pap smear?”

She’d put the phone in her pocket and was staring absently at a terra cotta woman sitting on an oak stand with her begging bowl. I’d had it there for years, so Jennifer had certainly seen it before. She shook her head, but left her eyes gently stroking its contours. “She always makes me relax… I’m glad she’s still here.” I could see her trying to disguise a sigh. “It’s nice that some things stay the same…” She was quiet for a moment as she thought about it. “…Stay the way they’re supposed to be,” she added to herself as she moved her eyes slowly over to my desk like sleeping birds and left them lying there. They didn’t see me, I don’t think.

I waited for her to continue, but she merely repositioned her attention onto her lap. “What do you mean?” I asked, when it became clear that she needed to talk about it.

Up flew the eyes to the box of tissues on the desk and she grabbed a handful to wipe away some tears. “It’s nothing about my pap smears,” she said in a hoarse voice. “I don’t need to take up your time…”

“The pap smear talk can wait for a bit, Jennifer. Tell me what’s upsetting you.” I smiled reassuringly, but her eyes never reached my face.

She took a deep and stertorous breath and then decided to send them on a reconnaissance flight in my direction. “Oh, it’s just my ‘friends’,” she said, making sure I understood that there were quote marks around the word. “I invited all 147 of them to like a business website that I’m starting…”

I have to admit that I was a bit confused. “Like? As in Facebook ‘like’ you mean?” I had no idea what message that sent. A friend had once asked me to ‘like’ her barbershop on Facebook and I had duly complied –it seemed simple enough… and if it made her feel good, what the heck, eh?

She nodded, although I could tell by her face that perhaps I shouldn’t have needed to clarify such an obvious point.

“And…?”

She took a deep breath and shrugged. “And, well I guess I don’t really have 147 friends.”

I didn’t ask her how she knew -I figured that was probably obvious, too. But I must have looked surprised, because she giggled at the notion. “I mean I didn’t really think they’d all like the page, but…”

I had to chuckle –I couldn’t help myself. “I don’t even know that many people, Jennifer. I mean not counting patients…” I quickly corrected, as her face interrogated me in disbelief.

“How many friends do you have on Facebook, doctor?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know… I mean, counting my kids and a few close friends… twenty, maybe…?”

She thought about that for a few seconds. “I don’t know how I got so many.” She glanced at the statue again. “Sort of like collecting tee shirts, I guess. They look so nice in the store, but I hardly ever wear them.”

A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Do you know how many ‘liked’ your… uhmm, page?” I tried to sound knowledgeable about the words, but to tell the truth, I was on slippery ground and I think it showed.

She caught her eyes, before they completed a roll and managed to salvage a serviceable smile out of what I’m sure was headed for a smirk. Then her eyes twinkled without her planning on it, and she giggled with delight at my expression. “Only seven, so far…”

It was my turn to nod, and I sat back in my chair as I did so. “Well maybe you come out the winner, then…”

She tilted her head, as cute as a button, and I could see the adult stirring behind the mirror of her eyes.

“Now you know what ‘friend’ really means…” I said, smiling.

Her eyes hovered around my face for a moment before they returned to their owner, and I think she blushed.

The Doors of Persuasion

The Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley -I loved that book; I read it when I was a teenager and was intrigued by the idea that there could be doors to abstractions as well as to rooms -doors to other areas, other places. Invisible portals that existed alongside more tangible things, and yet magical, somehow -like the door to Communication.

Communication is such an obvious and basic requirement to enable us to function that it is often invisible until pointed out. Almost everything we do is a form of communication; writing, creating, building -perhaps even imagining- are all done for someone else to notice –despite our ego-dominant protestations to the contrary. We, none of us, live in a vacuum –nor would we be able to, even if we mistakenly thought we might like to try it for a while.

No, the need to communicate is a given; we are social creatures. And there are many reasons for it: to reach out and feel the presence of another is a major one -to share the solitude we all inhabit and reassure ourselves that we are not alone.

And yet the other main purpose of communication –the imparting of information- can be more difficult. Is more difficult. We are all unique, and we guard the differences behind a variety of walls: culture, education, gender… There are so many ways. So many reasons. So many locks on so many doors. The art of communication has always involved the art of persuasion; to open a door, you must first want to open it -and trust that what is on the other side is neither harmful, nor antithetical to what you have become accustomed to, or are able to accept. Willing to accept.

In medicine, to open doors, we have often relied on the magic of arcane knowledge. But although communication through authority can force, it cannot persuade. Cannot convince people that what we advise is necessarily in their best interest, especially if the advice flies in the face of what they have always believed, what those around them have always lived, or what their culture or milieu has always prohibited. There is always other advice, other authorities they can consult that harmonize more readily with what they have been taught, so why should Western Medicine, as we have come to classify ourselves, be specially privileged?

I’m not convinced that in all cases, and in all circumstances it should be. There is usually not one answer that suffices, not just one approach to a problem. But if someone has come to a doctor for advice, or more unfortunately, has been swept into his purview through circumstances not of her choosing, it would be helpful to approach the issue with all the respect it demands. The trust one engenders as the doctor is assigned; it has not yet been earned on that first encounter. Authority of the sort we as doctors possess breaks down rapidly when it attempts to enforce an opinion. Contradicts a belief.

If I, for example, say that something is my belief, I may be closing a door unless the person to whom it is addressed already shares that opinion. Especially if uttered in a fashion or in a circumstance that negates the other person’s opinion -makes them lose face, or does not allow for a compromise that permits their own beliefs, and makes allowances for their own cultural practices. I am not talking life-and-death situations where emergency surgery is required to remove a ruptured appendix, say, or an antibiotic is needed to rescue the body from an overwhelming sepsis… More the situation where there may well be other options –some, perhaps not as appropriate or effective, but where the choice could still be construed as a matter of opinion –mine.

Each of us is the agent of our own lives and we should be free to decide for ourselves what path to walk. Some choices may be unwise and later we may wish we had chosen something else, but wherever possible, the choice should not be forced upon us. And indeed, one of the major premises of medical ethics forbids just that: the principle of autonomy –we should be free to choose whatever option we wish, even if the doctors disagree.

So, if we feel persuaded about the validity of our own beliefs, our own view of the world, it behooves us to unlock the doors of persuasion, not coercion. We are not always right –and that is surely not the point- but we have the best interests of our patients at heart and believe we can help. We do that by earning their trust, their respect, and their confidence. The object, after all, is not to prove that they are wrong and we are correct, but rather to help them to see that, in the face of the legion choices they could make, the one we suggest is most likely to produce the results we both desire.

I sometimes find that is the hardest part. It is difficult for me to listen sensitively to a monologue on ‘cleansing’, say, when I do not accept the thesis that disease is caused by toxins in the gut that need to be removed. It smacks too much of bloodletting, or leeches, of purgatives and enemas, of spells cast on the unwary… Attestations that the poor heart would fain deny, yet dare not. Even placebos help for a while, after all -it is the kingdom of Hope.

But it is not enough to merely try to keep an open mind -as the King says in Hamlet: My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go. The object, where ever possible, is to stop for a moment to listen -no matter what is said. There is often fear in the other voice. And it’s a dare of sorts that the patient issues: ‘Prove me wrong; convince me if you can -I need something- but first, listen, then explain your point of view. Let me believe I have been heard…’

I want to believe that hope springs eternal in both our breasts.

 

Trust in the Tameness of a Wolf?

Okay, enough is enough! All these years I have been an advocate of cultural relativism. Ethical parity when societal mores and folkways are accounted for. I still am a staunch defender of freedom of belief and societally derived variations from what might be seen as a Western norm, but there are times when I must step back and shake my head. Some things beggar all tenets of humane behaviour. Beggar belief, for that matter… Beggar all conceptions of canon, doctrine, creed… They are ethically and philosophical bereft!

The example -the proximate cause of  this jeremiad- is one that was reported in a BBC News article entitled The WhatsApp Suicide: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37735370 ‘A 40-year-old woman from northern India killed herself in January after a video of her being raped was circulated on WhatsApp.’ And, as if this madness itself weren’t sufficient to turn the country inside out, the article goes on to say ‘At village level, many are more bothered about women using mobile phones at all than they are about men using them to intimidate rape victims or to share videos of sexual assaults. A number of local councils in Uttar Pradesh, concerned with what they see as technology’s corrupting effect on traditional moral values, have prohibited girls from owning mobile phones.’ This follows from what seems to exist in some villages -at least in the region of northern India: ‘[…]in the patriarchal and honour-bound culture of the village, she could be blamed for “inviting” the sexual advances of a man – even if those advances were unwelcome, intimidating, or violent.’

It’s a two-edged sword, really, isn’t it? The women are able to use the phone and its network both for business and, presumably, to call for help, but the same phone can be used to shame and intimidate her. Blackmail her.

‘In August 2016, the Times of India found that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of video clips of sexual assault were being sold in shops across Uttar Pradesh every day. One shopkeeper in Agra told the newspaper, “Porn is passé. These real life crimes are the rage.” Another, according to the same report, was overheard telling customers that they might even know the girl in the “latest, hottest” video.’

But lest we delude ourselves into thinking that India is somehow unique in this regard, consider the case of a young woman in Egypt named Ghadeer: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37735368 She shared the enthusiasm of youth throughout the world –they are, after all, young and although as privy to the social constraints as their elders, not necessarily as wedded to them. She was 18 and videoed herself dancing –fully clothed, mind you, but too clearly enjoying the freedom. It ended up being shared on YouTube by a former boyfriend in an attempt to shame her in ‘a society in which women were required to cover their bodies and behave with modesty.’ But, unlike many, Ghadeer decided to fight back.

‘[…] in the years since she had sent the video, Ghadeer had also taken part in the Egyptian revolution, taken off her hijab, and started to speak out about the rights of women. Outraged that a man had attempted to publicly shame her, she took legal action. Although she succeeded in having him convicted for defamation, the video remained on YouTube – and Ghadeer found herself attacked on social media by men who sought to discredit her by posting links to it. In 2014, sick of the abuse and tired of worrying about who might see the film, Ghadeer made a brave decision: she posted the video on her own Facebook page. In an accompanying comment, she argued that it was time to stop using women’s bodies to shame and silence them. Watch the video, she said. I’m a good dancer. I have no reason to feel ashamed.’

But as the article goes on to note, ‘Most cases of this form of abuse go unreported because the same forces that make women vulnerable also ensure they remain silent.’ Just being photographed in defiance of the prevailing dress code –a hijab, for example- could be used by the unscrupulous for blackmail or intimidation.

Or another example –one of too many, unfortunately: ‘the 16-year-old victim of a gang rape in Morocco, set herself on fire in July this year, after her rapists threatened to share images of the attack online. The eight accused were trying to intimidate the girl’s family into dropping the charges against them but instead drove her to suicide, as she suffered third-degree burns and died in hospital.’

Enough examples! That anyone would disparage the ebullience of youth is in itself despicable, but to turn that same scorn on the most vulnerable of that demographic –the culturally disadvantaged status of females in many countries- smacks of almost terminal insecurity on the part of the (largely male) perpetrators. It’s still unclear to me what it is that renders them so fearful. Surely our very identity as males derives from our difference from –not inferiority to- females.  Much as ‘up’ is only so, in relation to ‘down’, there is an ‘inside’ only if an ‘outside’ exists. These are not value-laden; not better or worse –they merely mark a difference. We are mutually needful of the contrast.

And yet, the two have come to be pitted in an almost eternal battle within both myth and reality alike -the Givers of Life against the beneficiaries… As if Oedipus had turned on his mother or sided with the Sphinx rather than killing his father -all equally pointless. Meaningless.

In a way, I’m reminded of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf…’ –or the excuses so readily proffered by those who, in any sane world, should have none.

A question might well be asked about the state of our domestication.

 

 

Eeny Meeny

I have always been fascinated by the idea of choice –the philosophy of choice. What does it mean to choose? Does the act of embracing one thing necessarily exclude the other, or merely prejudice it? Blemish it? Dishonour it? Alternatively, given an either/or situation, is it possible to throw the pair into a box and merely choose the box? After all, that’s (sort of) what Set Theory allows mathematicians to do –group together unlike things with common properties for analysis.

It seems to me there are several types of choice that range from necessary to frivolous, each with its own particular reason for being made, and each with its own particular set of consequences. Some choices are imposed from without, and some from within; some have to be made, while some are voluntary. Personal. The most compelling ones –for me, anyway- are those in that box –that set

The issue surfaced again for me after reading another BBC news article on non-binary gendering: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37383914  I published another essay on this topic in July, but there I was more concerned with managing its language eccentricities: (https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2016/07/13/non-binary-gynaecology/ ) I realized even then that there was much more to it than language, but the more recent BBC article really brought that home. How can you choose between two things when you are both? It would be like choosing between your son and your daughter –a Sophie’s Choice.

And yet, it would seem that Society feels more comfortable with identifiable categories –in this case, they’re usually anatomically assigned, so from that perspective, they’re not exactly arbitrary… Just unfair. Insensitive. Closed…

Perhaps my long career as an obstetrician/gynaecologist has blurred the gender boundaries as thoroughly as it has the social, economic and ethnic ones. When you get right down to it, we’re all more alike than we might like to think, and categories eventually leak like unwaxed paper cups.

I take the bus a lot nowadays –I’m not sure why, really, except that I enjoy watching those around me. And listening. Sometimes I feel a little like Jane Goodall, only my country is the bus, and my subjects, are people, not chimpanzees in deepest Africa. The other day, I happened to be on a rather crowded vehicle just after the local public schools had opened their gates. Standing next to me in the aisle were two young girls, both around eleven or twelve years old judging by their looks. Each was wearing jeans, sneakers, and coloured ski jackets, and both were hugging their backpacks to their chests, for some reason. One, a rather tall girl with short, brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses, was rummaging in her pack for something while her friend –a blond with hair that she had tied into a rather messy ponytail, watched with interest.

“Do you have any gum in there, Cindy?” the blond said, peering into the caverns of her own pack.

“No… I was just looking for some lipstick,” she said proudly, glancing at me as she said it.

“What! Your mom lets you wear lipstick?”

The tall girl blushed at the response. “Well it’s just reddish Chapstick, but it, like, reddens my lips, too…”

The blond nodded collegially, and then pointed at the two seats in front of me that had just been vacated. After that, only scattered bits of their conversation filtered back to me.

“Yeah… sometimes, I do Cindy,” the blond said, nudging her friend.

“But you said…”

“I said sometimes!”

Then Cindy elbowed her softly, as if she understood completely. “I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like…”

“It’s kinda confusing -every so often, anyway…”

“You mean choosing which…?” Cindy seemed puzzled.

I could tell that the blond had to think about that. Then she shook her head thoughtfully. “No, more like who I am when I try to think about it…”

Cindy looked at her for a moment and then straight ahead, as if she was suddenly embarrassed. “Aren’t you just ‘Connie’? I mean no matter what you feel like, aren’t you still a Connie?”

Connie was quiet for a moment. “I guess…” They were both silent for a bit. “I don’t think names really matter though, do you Cindy?”

Cindy shrugged and looked at her. “I suppose as long as you answer…”

I could hear Connie giggle at that. “I’m still Connie… But whatever you call me, it’s still me inside.

Cindy nodded slowly but I could tell she was still perplexed about her friend. “Have you…Have you told Father Simms?”

Connie immediately shook her head vigorously and the little ponytail almost came undone. “No way! He’d just tell my parents.”

“How about your mom and dad then?”

“Mommy thinks it’s just a phase –hormones kicking in or something…”

“Well…”

“Cindy I’ve always felt like this; I just didn’t say anything.” She glanced out the window and nudged Cindy again. “Better pull the cord. It’s the next stop.”

Cindy looked up and then obliged. But as they passed me, I could hear Cindy’s concerned whisper -as if it wasn’t something she dared to say it in a normal voice. “But how come you don’t think like the rest of us in the church?”

“How do you know I don’t?” Connie said with a laugh, and they both stepped off the bus, giggling.

I thought about it for a while before my stop came. If I hadn’t just read the BBC article on non-binary gender, I would have assumed they were simply talking about God. But now that I’ve had more time to replay the conversation in my mind… I’m not so sure. Maybe I was granted a privileged audience with someone very special.

 

 

An Even More Modest Proposal

How many of you remember being presented with Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ in English 101? It was a not so subtle satire of 18th century British treatment of the Irish, in which he hyperbolically –and anonymously- suggested that the Irish might be able to ease their economic distress by selling their children for food to English gentry. It was clearly so outrageous and inflammatory that it was intended to make the readers see how wrong the then-prevailing treatment of fellow human beings could be. To alter, in other words, the perspective, and facilitate the shift to a different world view. To allow people to see what they had hitherto ignored and perhaps make them want to improve it.

My own modest proposal is less preposterous and certainly not satirical, but it does fly in the face of what we in the richer nations have come to expect and accept: only the use of professionals in our health system; and discount: the adjunctive use of non-professionals to help with some aspects of that care. It was engendered by a segment in an October 2016 PBS program and has intrigued me ever since: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/can-ordinary-citizens-help-fill-gaps-u-s-health-care/ The idea that health care is becoming increasingly expensive and that even with universal coverage, there are still a lot of gaps that are unlikely to improve even with the addition of more doctors and nurses. Training and equipping them is expensive, and still does not usually solve the problem of their accessibility to those most in need –the poor and disadvantaged in our societies.

Professionals are viewed as part of a power structure that is often alien to a population all too frequently ignored, isolated and denigrated by the mainstream. Issues of cultural safety frequently play a role in this –lack of understanding and respect for cultural or economic disparities may make them unwilling to engage with professionals until the problem is untenable or even irremediable. Prejudices don’t need to be stated; they are too often felt. So the idea that there may be bridges into this demographic –keys, however counterintuitive, that could unlock barred doors- is worth exploring.

The idea of using trained volunteers to talk to those in society that are often ignored until in extremis is certainly not new. Think of the ‘barefoot doctors’ working in rural villages in China, for example. Or, ‘In sub-Saharan Africa, community health workers have long formed the backbone of health systems, filling in gaps where doctors and nurses are in short supply.’ The key concept for the acceptance of these para-medical workers, of course, was the relative lack of other facilities and professionals to fill them.

So why should we, in our relative affluence, consider the use of non-professionals? Especially here in Canada where, in 2003 at least, there were 2.14 doctors and 9.95 nurses per 1000 population? Perhaps in Malawi, where there is 1 doctor per 50,000 people (2004) the need is more readily apparent, but Canada…?  Well, it seems to me that the gap is not so much one of professional numbers as engagement. As one of the patients interviewed in the PBS program said of the volunteer that talks to her about her severe diabetes condition: ‘With your doctor, you don’t really want to say what you eat, so I’m able to tell her like, really, if I’m not going well, or, you know, if I sneaked and cheated. I tell her the right things, and she helps me.’

In other words, the volunteer is not attempting to take the place of the doctor or nurse and give medical advice, but is acting almost as a translator of patient concerns that are not verbalized in front of the doctor or nurse. We sometimes forget the power discrepancies on display between doctor and marginalized patient.

The addition of trained community volunteers should not be seen as a threat to the professions, but rather as a helpful, and essential, adjunct to expand the reach of healthcare beyond its present boundaries. Nor should it be seen as creeping multi-tiered medicine with the poor being relegated to substandard care –swept under a carpet where they can be safely ignored until they become seriously ill and show up in Emergency Departments across the land -an expensive way to provide health care, not to mention wellness-promotion. It is simply not cost-effective, no matter the system.

The volunteers can be used to penetrate the layers and develop relationships with people who otherwise might not seek help until they had no other choice. Help them to know when to seek professional advice. Check to see if they are following whatever recommendations were given; make sure they take their medicines as directed. Emergency care is expensive and its facilities limited; timely, early intervention is both preferable and, ultimately, more humane. I know that our Social Service is already doing a sterling job in this regard -especially in our larger cities- but they are stretched pretty thinly nowadays; I would think they might appreciate a little help. Doctors and nurses in the various walk-in community clinics or in smaller towns could suggest clients who might benefit from some additional help, and the word would spread from there… As I have suggested, there are layers within layers to penetrate in a neighbourhood.

And if we agree that the volunteers would be better prepared and more useful if they received an appropriate basic training course to equip them for what they are likely to encounter, why not fund this? For that matter, why not pay them? Or am I being naive?

It’s a modest proposal, though… Isn’t it?