Here’s an outrageous assertion: there are some things that we just cannot control. Worse, sometimes they are undefineable – or at least so vague as to defy placing them on some scale or other. Ranking them in terms of importance either to us, or to others. Naming them for future reference. And if we cannot even assign a name, categorization is slippery, too.
All of us experience these uncontrollables. Sometimes we are suddenly enveloped –a fog that obscures direction so completely that we are lost, abandoned in a terrifying limbo- but as often, we wade in from familiar territory until, over our depth, we panic.
Doctors, among others, seem to gather these fractious elements like apples in a basket we scarcely notice we are carrying. Its not that we are incompetent –although circumstances often determine competency, don’t they? It is that situations pile up like obstacles -and detours, of necessity, require changes in direction. Unintended changes. Routes that, until they are explored and charted, make regaining the original destination difficult, if not time consuming.
A recent example from my practice: suppose, for a moment, you are a gynaecologist who has been referred a young woman with a benign tumour, a uterine fibroid, say. Even though fibroids –benign overgrowths of uterine muscle tissue- are fairly common in middle age, fibroids of significant size are unusual in young women. You are reassured by many factors in your investigations thus far, however: the ultrasound appearance, the blood tests measuring tumour markers, and her general good health. She has no pain; she has no symptoms, and the fibroid is small -only 1 cm in diameter. And, as important, a clinical examination does not hint of cancer, or demonstrate a lack of mobility of the lump in her pelvis that might indicate malignant attachments. She has simply been plucked from the realm everyday existence by a test done for something else but which found a tiny mass on her uterus.
She is barely out of her teens and as yet unattached, but dreams of a relationship and children –the proverbial girl next door. Her life has been turned upside down in an instant, and intimations of mortality that should not be collecting outside her door for years are suddenly apparent -a tree branch scratching her window in the night.
You discuss the features of fibroids, show her what she has on a diagram, then answer her questions and attempt to calm her down. Finally, after considering all the factors in her case, you speak to her of what you would recommend: observation and reassessment with another ultrasound in 6 months. Perhaps sooner if she develops any symptoms –pressure, or pain with sex, for example.
But she is worried, and all of your explanations have only served to reify the alien lump, hitherto hidden and unnoticed. It is real for her now, and it shouldn’t be there. The fact that her mother required a hysterectomy for them in her forties after years of heavy periods and pelvic pressure, has always weighed heavily on her.
You put down your pen, and listen as she tells you how she has researched the various therapeutic options online. You have already discussed them, of course, but have counselled against their use because of the small size of the lump. She smiles at you, because she agrees she is not a candidate. No, she wants the lump surgically removed –a myomectomy- before it gets too big. Before it causes symptoms. Before it interferes with becoming pregnant.
It is always difficult to disagree with a thoughtful person who presents her arguments in a cogent and reasonable fashion, but one always has to help the patient weigh the risks and the benefits more objectively. More contextually. Especially when you feel that surgery is not indicated. There are risks to surgery –major risks. Risks that are obviously assimilable under certain circumstances, but in your expert judgment, not hers. Fibroids grow slowly, so there is certainly time to consider less invasive options. Some sort of a compromise is in order.
You attempt to do this, to help her stand back and consider her request within the landscape of her actual needs. You try to help her to separate her concerns about the fibroids her mother had to have treated when she was much older, and her own situation.
But she is adamant. It can be done laparoscopically –belly-button surgery- so she will not even need much time off school, she points out.
When you still are hesitant, she breaks down in tears and heads for the door, sobbing. You relent and say you are willing to refer her for a second opinion, secretly hoping the other surgeon will be able to convince her to wait. But she is not listening any more; you have failed her.
But have you? At what point can failure be assigned? Does a reluctance to acquiesce to demands which are predicated on fear and misunderstanding constitute failure? Or is failure actually the opposite: going against your considered judgment to please the patient?
Years ago, I saw a very similar person –the daughter of a doctor in another part of the country she immediately informed me. She was adamant about wanting surgery –felt she was entitled to it, in fact. And encapsulated in the trappings of my recent specialist status, I was equally certain of my opposition to it. She was quite verbally abusive to me when I wouldn’t change my mind and also walked out of the office, but not in tears… She had a smirk on her face.
She was a heavy woman, a smoker, and although in her twenties, not in the best of health. We weren’t doing many difficult laparoscopies in those days, so any surgery would have required a large incision –her abdomen was obese and pendulous- and several days in hospital to recover. In her case the fibroid was only 2 cm in diameter –still small. Still observable over time.
I was puzzled by the expression on her face until I learned from my secretary that she was actually scheduled for a myomectomy with another surgeon in another town –but not for a month or two. She had been hoping I could schedule it sooner in my hospital.
I felt guilty, although I couldn’t really understand why. She was a poor operative risk despite her age, and the surgery was unnecessary anyway. I wondered whether I had made the correct decision, or whether I had been unduly influenced by her being rude to me when I’d tried to present the reasons for my opinion. Had pride clouded my judgement? Had she been right all along?
So, did I fail her? Or did the other surgeon? Were we both manipulated?
There is a condition called pulmonary embolism that occurs when a clot formed in a vein breaks free of its source and travels to the lungs to obstruct the blood supply. Some factors increase the risk of forming clots –major surgery, obesity, smoking, immobility… An embolus can kill if not treated immediately. Nowadays, we recognize these risks more readily and will prophylactically employ anticoagulation –blood thinners- to decrease the likelihood of clot formation. We ambulate patients more quickly and educate them about the risks.
In those days, I think we were more concerned with the risks of anticoagulation –bleeding internally, for example- than we are today. And so, especially in the non-teaching hospitals in small towns, prophylactic anticoagulation was not a routine standard of care. In fact, it was usually only considered in patients with more extreme and identifiable risks –cancers, for example. The regimens and even the choices of medication were limited then; surgeons were rightly as afraid of the treatment as of what it prevented. Risks had to be balanced. Managed.
I mention pulmonary embolus, because that patient died from one. I only found out weeks later when the surgeon phoned me after he discovered my consultation letter that the referring GP had forwarded to him. He was devastated, as were we all.
It’s easy to be revisionist in retrospect –especially years hence when protocols have changed, not to mention knowledge and available medications. We see the world through modern lenses and judge in the light of current knowledge. Things change. It was –and is- a tragedy that it happened. And it’s a burden which that family –and that surgeon- will carry forever. But in fairness, how critical can we be? Should we be? The assimilability of risks varies over time and things we might consider preventable nowadays, were understandably viewed differently then. Not only do things change, things happen.
Hopefully we learn from them.