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.

 

As I Age

As I age, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Life is far more complicated than I could ever have suspected. It is like a stew where I keep finding new ingredients –some to my liking, and some… Well, let’s just characterize them as unexpected -mysterious strangers that surface from time to time, wreak havoc, then disappear again like shadows on a moonless night.

Social movements are often like that –or, rather, social solutions. Society changes over time and it has been the fashion of late, to see this as an evolutionary adaptation to underlying conditions –the slow but steady metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly. And yet, sometimes the change is more abrupt -a mutation- and we are forced to deal with the consequences. When things around us change, we attempt to keep up –or at least, like the Red Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, find ourselves running faster and faster to stay in the same place.

And one manifestation of this is the need to preserve a thin weft of values as a template during the inchoate and often thread-bare interregnum. I’m thinking, of course, about the age-old philosophical conundrum of whether we should tolerate the intolerant –and if so, then how? And at what price the compromise? One example from many: the need to establish special female-only transportation in the city of Zhengzhou in eastern China to help women feel safe from sexual harassment. To guard them. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-36169029  Of course, the problem is by no means unique to China -other countries have discovered the same need and arrived at similar solutions.

But it seems to me that the issue is far more complex than these solutions might suggest. This gender issue, in some ways is not dissimilar to the racial problems that surfaced so violently in the last century in America. To think that having different buses for people of colour would salve the problem was proven to be naïve, and in itself discriminatory.

It comes down to the difference between toleration and acceptance: putting up with something that might not actually be approved of –enduring it: ‘toleration is directed by an agent toward something perceived as negative. It would be odd to say, for example, that someone has a high tolerance for pleasure’; versus  Acceptance: acknowledging and welcoming something as itself; permission versus approval. A power struggle either deferred, or shared.

To equivocate for a moment, should we tolerate mere tolerance, or accept it…? As an interim solution, of course. In other words, is it better to have the segregated buses for women, say, than groping and intimidation on more inclusive public transit? To say that there should not be sexual harassment is all well and good, but it ignores the present reality –there is, and to ignore it would therefore be akin to tolerating it. So are we  trapped in a never-ending game of chase-your-tail, forever condemned to wander the Mobius strip looking for an exit?

Perhaps it might be helpful to distinguish the component parts of the issue (I have adapted some principles from the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/tolerati/#SH4a).  It seems to me that there is a difference between the more superficial and emotional response to whatever is being tolerated (Let’s call this the Reactive Stage) –the need to separate the aggrieved from the aggressor, for example- and the Rational Stage: the more dispassionate and reasoned analysis of the problem –if indeed such an analysis is feasible, or could even be rationally justified. In other words, on what grounds does the prejudice in question continue to exist? Is it remediable, or inevitable? Should we be forced to retreat behind our own societal boundaries and accept the relativistic excuses proffered that we simply can’t superimpose our own values on those who are not like us? That we, in fact, do not understand –nor likely ever will, since we are other?

Or, closer to home, can we ever hope to change attitudes such as disrespect and insensitivity to aspects of personal autonomy that have been entrenched –and indeed accepted- for countless unquestioning generations -that, until recently, were not even considered problems requiring solutions?

Well, societies do alter as time and members change; I’m not sure we could characterize the alterations as necessarily evolutionary, or teleologically driven, but certainly the initial reactive and then the more rational stages can often be discerned. The societal attitudes towards Gay rights, for example, have undergone major shifts within the past few years –even the initial toleration, which was rare in past decades, is now remodelling itself as acceptance.

So what -if anything- has Age taught me? What has the passage of years and the successive unfolding of events disclosed? Well, it has become clear that in the long run, our enemies become our friends; that we seek and find compromises satisfactory to each –bargains that in due course cease to be seen as concessions by either party, but rather as amicable balance; that Force only suppresses while it is being applied; and that discussion is inevitable and infinitely preferable to confrontation. We may not be able to evince our much-touted rationality in all things, but we are all eventually susceptible –amenable even- to accommodation.

Omnia vincit amor, I suppose.

 

 

Rethinking Placebos

Placebo. I love the word; it comes from the Latin verb placere: to please, and in the first person future indicative –placebo– translates as ‘I will please’. Wonderful.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, probably since rereading a Dec. 31/14 article in Medscape entitled ‘Should Doctors Use More Placebos?’ http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/835197 The answer, of course, is ambiguous –no one seems to want to commit to the use of a technique favoured in the days when there were few other options; times when there were no antibiotics, no condition-specific medications –no detailed knowledge of the physiology of the body, let alone diseases. Those were times when naming the problem and being able to give a likely prognosis was an important part of Medicine. I suppose it still is. But the other, equally important component nowadays, of course, is solving the problem so named –solving, as well as hopefully curing it with specifically targeted medications or therapies.

Placebos have usually been construed as inert, essentially harmless substances with little or no known properties that might otherwise be helpful in restoring bodily health. No pharmacological effect… So why would anyone wish to use them anymore? Or do we?

In this informed era of medical ethics –and of course, social media- would it even be possible to use placebo treatment, except, maybe, in a study where a treatment is being compared to no -or likely ineffective- treatment (placebo treatment) and where the participants are unaware which substance they are receiving (so as not to bias the results) and have understood and accepted this? Not something likely to occur in the average visit to a doctor’s office for an illness.

And the ethics that need to be considered? Well, amongst others, the concept of autonomy –the right of an individual to make both their own treatment decision and an informed choice. And then, of course, there is the ethical requirement for Informed Consent. How can you give someone a treatment without telling her that you may well end up using something that is pharmacologically inert? A non-medication, as it were.

A placebo is usually a trick –you think you have been given something specifically designed to help; you take it on trust; you have faith in the doctor… If you found out that what you had been given –lied to about, in fact- was inert, wouldn’t that undermine your confidence, and especially your trust, in that doctor? Even if it worked? Or maybe especially if it worked –it would mean he thought your condition was more psychological than physiological –i.e. ‘all in your head’. Not very likely to foster a continuing relationship.

But what if the doctor told you he was going to use a placebo for your condition? Would it work if you knew? Well, here’s where it can get interesting; there is a difference between using a placebo and using the placebo effect: the approach to the patient matters as well as what is given to attack the problem. Such things as actually hearing the patient –listening to what they have to say- rather than immediately reaching for the prescription pad; being reassuring and sympathetic. Friendly. Understanding. The demeanour and hope with which any treatment is administered has been shown to effect the results –the art of Medicine.

But nowadays, we all know about this. The fact that there is some theatre to medicine, and a play of characters is not a secret –although I suspect that most of us prefer not to think about it when we ourselves have an illness. The play within the play…

It got me thinking about placebos in my specialty, though. Are there any placebos in gynaecology, for instance, and do we ever use them? We certainly use the placebo effect in obstetrics –we are constantly reassuring our patients about the never-ending and always-changing symptoms occasioned by their growing bodies. Most of them don’t need investigations or tests- nor do they need any specific medication -just an acknowledgment by the doctor that whatever the patient has noticed is not something to be worried about. It is not something malevolent, nor likely to affect the baby, but merely something that happens in pregnancy –part of the spectrum. Something to be expected. It’s a trust issue. That’s why they came to you after all.

And what about gynaecology? All medicine involves placebo effects –we’ve just discussed that- but what about placebos? Are we kidding ourselves to think that gyaecology is exempt from their use? I suppose it depends on how you define a placebo. As we’ve already seen, a placebo is classically defined as a substance that is not likely to have any measurable pharmacological effects and so is considered inert. But what about a substance that is not yet proven by scientists to have an effect –for example by well-designed studies that compare various treatments? Of course, it may simply be that no one has actually studied the substance so far; there are many complementary and alternative medicines that Western Medicine has not subjected to analysis. So their use by the doctor would not necessarily be as a therapy, but maybe as an acquiescence to a patient’s request, in the absence, perhaps, of any other recognized treatment options.

How about a substance that has some effects, and yet likely not enough, nor sufficiently consistently to be considered a mainstay treatment, but which might be sold, say, in a health food store? Some of the phytoestrogens found in materials like clover or soy have estrogenic effects, but may attach weakly or ineffectively to certain estrogen receptors -and in some organs but not others…

And then there are medications that are useful for other conditions –perhaps related, but not necessarily so- but are re-packaged for a new life. The use of ovulation inducers in infertility treatment, even when the patient is known to be ovulating –a just-in-case therapy. Or an antibiotic for a new-onset, ultrasound negative –but as yet undiagnosed- pelvic pain in a woman when she shows up in a busy emergency department. Maybe it’s an infection… Or vitamin pill use for the busy woman who doesn’t have time for a healthy diet every day. It can’t hurt and it may help… Surely these are placebos.

Or substances that have switched their roles over the years –were they inadvertent placebos that have been since promoted? Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) was once only considered a pain reliever and was used for menstrual cramps. It seemed to help patients cope with the period but this was assumed to be only because of the pain relief. So it was a placebo for coping, a therapy for pain. Then, because it was later discovered to be an anti-prostaglandin –which is a chemical mediator of inflammation and has a direct effect on the flow through blood vessels (and hence one cause for increased bleeding and cramping with periods because of dilated blood vessels in the area)- ASA, or at least more modern analogues of antiprostaglandins such as ibuprofen, was reassigned to a new function. A new, non-placebo job, as it were. So, although it did one job at first, was it an unsuspecting placebo that actually did two jobs? Is that a temporal placebo? An interesting philosophical conundrum –but I suspect I am stretching the concept beyond any useful application.

Maybe we’re looking at the whole idea of placebos the wrong way. In our data-glutted age where information is conflated with knowledge perhaps we need a concept that defies mere illumination and transcends erudition. Something that is so embedded in the weft of context that it disappears in the very act of searching for it –an unsolvable Where’s Waldo. Sometimes our need for elucidation of every aspect of the world we live in is self-defeating. Maybe –just maybe- we don’t need to know where the geese go when they disappear through clouds that gird the mountain tops. Just that they come back every year. ..Somehow.

The Problem of Puberty

Puberty is alchemy, don’t you think? Like the chrysalis of a butterfly, the girl emerges from the pupal case of her childhood into an adolescent -an almost-woman- with hormones ablaze. It is a magic time of change, both in growth and physiology, but also in cognitive development. It is a time of evolving expectations, but more slowly developing judgement –the brain, too, is undergoing renovations. Hence our oft-aggrandized memories of the time –not deceptions, exactly, but distortions. To paraphrase Napoleon: history is the version of past events that I have decided to agree upon.

Many of the manifestations we see of puberty are the confusion of autonomies –the challenges to the boundaries that society imposes. I think Wikipedia has summarized the issues quite succinctly: ‘Psychologists have identified three main types of autonomy: emotional independence, behavioral autonomy, and cognitive autonomy. Emotional autonomy is defined in terms of an adolescent’s relationships with others, and often includes the development of more mature emotional connections with adults and peers. Behavioral autonomy encompasses an adolescent’s developing ability to regulate his or her own behavior, to act on personal decisions, and to self-govern. Cultural differences are especially visible in this category because it concerns issues of dating, social time with peers, and time-management decisions. Cognitive autonomy describes the capacity for an adolescent to partake in processes of independent reasoning and decision-making without excessive reliance on social validation.’ It is obviously a special and bewildering, albeit a magical  time. A time for planting the crop that is to come…

Because there are so many physiological processes involved, the actual start of puberty has always been approximate. Genes no doubt play a major role in its onset, but nutrition and general health are obviously involved as well because puberty is changing –it’s starting earlier. As an article from BBC news reports: The age of puberty is changing around the world. In the UK it is currently starting about one month earlier every decade. In China it is more than four months earlier every decade. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-33168864

Of course, we have an almost obsessive need to analyze every change –to match every nuance with some overly reductionist, albeit plausible, explanation. Meat, for example. Yes, I’m serious: http://www.bbc.com/news/10287358  Although it’s an older study, and Vegan-unreferenced, I have to wonder if they could have equally successfully used milk consumption, or perhaps eggs, or even Starbucks coffee… 

But whatever the causes of earlier puberty, that very change may have unexpected –and perhaps unwanted- ramifications as the MRC Epidemiology Unit  at the University of Cambridge recently published using the data of almost half a million people from the UK Biobank: http://www.nature.com/srep/2015/150618/srep11208/full/srep11208.html

Doesn’t it seem strange that improving health and nutrition could have untoward, unintended consequences, although somewhat removed in time and maturity? Perhaps targetable with preventive interventions to be sure, as the authors point out in their abstract, but nonetheless ironic –the Red Queen needing to run faster and faster to stay in the same spot…

The most convincing evidence of the effect of an earlier puberty, apparently, is in its association with higher risks for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in women. A simple reasoned path to the type 2 diabetes (and its well known association with obesity) might be that: ‘early childhood rapid growth and overweight precede early puberty timing in both sexes, but in turn early puberty timing leads to subsequent rapid gains in weight and adiposity during adolescence and early adulthood’, but this may be an over-simplification of one of many factors that may be contributing –longer exposure to hormones, say, or life-style decisions altered by earlier maturation than peers: ‘environmental stressors may precede early puberty, but in turn early puberty leads to more risk taking behaviours and poor school performance.’ Intriguing, but speculative to say the least.

And on the more optimistic side of changing pubertal age? Well… there is a trend towards a lower risk for breast cancer in those with a later onset of puberty –although in fairness, this is likely related to a decreased time of exposure to hormones, so I’m not sure if it isn’t just a bit of trade-off… And anyway, trend is often what you call something that is not statistically significant (and yet perhaps lends credence to your hypothesis?).

But are we simply treading water in storm-tossed seas?  At risk of drowning in the details of semi-focused data swirling around us –most of which, at least in this case, was dependent on self reported medical histories and events that happened years before? Admittedly, the age of the first period is probably recalled with fair accuracy by most women –it is an event like few others- but aren’t researchers as seduced by this form of reasoning as the rest of us: the development of diabetes just begging for a scapegoat? So, choose the goat, widen the parameters, and voila…

An illustrative example of how easy it is to be led astray: many years ago, before we knew very much about the causal agent for cancer of the cervix (it is now known to be the human papilloma virus) but had pretty well decided it was something infectious –something sexually transmitted at any rate- the herpes virus came under scrutiny. It was infectious; many women exhibiting it also had abnormal pap smears suggesting precursor lesions for cervix cancer; and it was obvious –women who developed herpes were almost always aware of it. Herpes was easy to blame, because it was fairly straightforward to date the pap smear problem to some time after the event of acquisition. Everything fit –except it was not the cause. Not only did people who had never experienced herpes also develop abnormal pap smears, but similarly, not all people with herpes developed pap smear changes. The recall was an easy data point -something to blame- it’s just that it was the wrong thing.

My point is, it can be misleading to attribute cause merely based on recallable events. We all require explanations -something to blame. But, Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Well, the Latin may sound authoritative but not in Medicine. It is a logical fallacy…

This is all unfair to the study I know; I don’t mean to cast aspersions on either the researchers or their methodology, and yet I can’t help but worry about reports of this kind. Huge data bases are tempting geologies for data mining. But association is not necessarily causation.

As the humorist James Thurber once wrote: ‘Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?’ –just in case, I guess…

Stereotypes in Medicine

I suppose we are all, at times, seduced by stereotypes. They are, after all, a simplified way of processing the other world –underlining how they are different from us. Even the etymology of the word, derived from Greek, seems as if it would be helpful: stereos –firm, or solid; typos –impression. But unfortunately it has wandered from its first use in the printing field as something that would reliably duplicate what was engraved on the master plate, to its use in 1922 in a book entitled Public Opinion that suggested a ‘preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group’.  It has grown and metastasized, cancer-like, from there. Now, any attribution is suspect. Any observation, coloured. What was once felt to be useful is now recognized as impossibly simplistic. Naïve.

We are far too complex to fit into labelled baskets that purport to describe our essence or predict our opinions. Indeed, to stereotype a group is to consider it different –perhaps not unreasonable as an observation, but also dangerously close to slipping into an us/them perspective with its risk of discrimination and prejudice. As Wikipedia (sorry!) summarizes it: ‘Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination are understood as related but different concepts. Stereotypes are regarded as the most cognitive component and often occurs without conscious awareness, whereas prejudice is the affective component of stereotyping and discrimination is one of the behavioral components of prejudicial reactions. In this tripartite view of intergroup attitudes, stereotypes reflect expectations and beliefs about the characteristics of members of groups perceived as different from one’s own, prejudice represents the emotional response, and discrimination refers to actions.’

So, the stereotyping of an individual, or worse, the group to which she presumably belongs, can have consequences well beyond the initial encounter –‘unintended consequences’, as we are so fond of saying in retrospect- and yet we still seem genuinely surprised that things would turn out like that. I am always heartened, therefore, when I read about those who are able to pierce the curtain and see what lives outside the window: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-34359936

I like to tell myself that all my years in practice have dissolved the last dregs of stereotypes from my psyche, and yet my guilt, my terror of succumbing, is still alive and well –if tucked away. But, if stereotyping can occur without conscious awareness, the very act of trying to avoid it suggests that there is something there in the first place…

Manipulation always reminds me of the danger. Not my manipulation, you understand (and besides, I don’t call it that); no, my patients’ attempts at beguiling me. My mother was a masterful manipulator and I’ve always noticed similar attempts by others. Perhaps the very labelling of their actions as manipulations is itself a stereotype, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I still remember a time, several years ago now, when I was discussing the pros and cons of vaccination against HPV, the sexually transmitted virus responsible for cancer of the uterine cervix. The woman, a well-educated software engineer at a local start-up company, had asked me what I thought of her daughter being vaccinated in school.

“She’s only in grade six, doctor -11 years old! She hasn’t even thought about…” Loretta hesitated briefly as she sorted through her vocabulary. Clearly, even the thought of her daughter as a sexually active individual was uncomfortable for her. “…being intimate.” She immediately blushed at the word.

It’s a delicate topic for parents and I nodded sympathetically. “Not intimate yet, I’m sure,” I said and smiled to diffuse her embarrassment. “But when she gets older, it would be nice to know she will be protected against the virus, don’t you think?”

Loretta’s face hardened at the thought –or maybe at the fact that I needed to bring it to her attention. Her expression was adamant: her daughter was not like that. She studied my face for a moment, her eyes made short angry excursions onto it, then, finding nowhere to roost, hurried back to safety. “I think I will decide when she is older and more able to understand.”

I tried to disguise a sigh. “Sometimes our children understand a lot more than we suspect, Loretta…”

I could see her stiffen in her chair. “I know my daughter. You may be a parent…” She paused to run her eyes up and down what she could see of me from where she sat, obviously trying to decide whether even that was possible. “But you are not a woman, doctor; you couldn’t possibly understand the mother/daughter bond!”

My only possible response was a smile, so I parried with the best one I could muster under attack. “You did ask for my opinion, Loretta,” I managed to reply in an even voice.

She unleashed her eyes on my face again, this time as birds of prey, and as they circled for the kill, she managed to answer in a polite monotone. “You health practitioners are all the same, aren’t you? You think you have all the answers. You, my GP, the school doctor –even the school nurse- prattling on about anticipated behaviours and how you want to deal with them as if you were all decanting untasted wine from the same expensive bottle.”

My smile broadened at her use of the simile but my reaction only seemed to fluster her more. I shook my head slowly. “Most of us certainly don’t think we have all the answers, Loretta.” Her eyelids fluttered as if I were a politician trying to convince a wary population. “But I suppose we do try to prevent problems when we see them coming. Cancer of the cervix used to be a major problem until we recognized it was caused by a common sexually transmitted virus. The obvious next step was to see if we could develop a vaccine to protect against it like we did with small pox –or polio…” I shrugged as if I had just made an irrefutable point.

She stared out the window for a moment, undecided, and then I could see her body language change. Soften. Her eyes were sparrows again –finches, maybe: curious, but playful. “I just stereotyped you didn’t I?” I hadn’t thought of it that way, I have to admit; the accusation usually comes from the opposite direction. I nodded in pleasant agreement. “But it’s a two way street isn’t it?” she added with an impish smile, obviously unwilling to let me off unscathed. “I saw you rolling your eyes at the mother-daughter bond thing.” She could hardly talk for her smile. “Over-protective mother meets omniscient doctor, right?” She settled back more comfortably in her chair. “Both of us using our unique and non-reciprocable roles to pull rank. To manipulate each other –ad hominem stuff…” she added and then chuckled.

Suddenly she became serious and I could sense she needed an answer. “Tell me, doctor,” she said, carefully choosing her words, “If I were your daughter, would you advise me to have your granddaughter vaccinated?”

A serious question; a personal question -and I didn’t hesitate to respond. I nodded my head immediately.

She relaxed again. “Then I have my answer, don’t I?” she said and started to put on her coat. She stopped at the door and turned to me with a little smile waving for attention on her face. “Did I just get swept up in another stereotype?”

I had to shrug. I’m just not sure anymore.

To Have, or not to Have

There are two worlds out there, two Magisteria. Two contrasting inclinations that pass each other on the street without a wave. Strangers who sometimes know each other well. They sit, unwittingly close to each other, in the waiting room of my office. They chat and smile obligingly, trusting that their ignorance of the other is no impediment to friendship, however brief. Indeed, there is no barrier, only a perspectival boundary: Weltanschauung.

And yet, I don’t want to make too much of the difference; it is often in flux, and can mutate even as we watch –Time has a way of adjusting viewpoints,  justifying decisions. We all try to vindicate ourselves in the end. Validation requires exculpation, does it not? Absolution in the eyes of those who matter…

So the stronger the tradition, the societal apologue, the more the justification and guilt assigned to those who stray from it. There is a sort of canniness in the collective –or at least strength. Acceptance… And it is easier to regress to the mean, than defy the group. Especially when it comes to attitudes towards pregnancy –or more specifically, the decision whether or not to have a baby.

I’ve just read an incredibly powerful  book, whose title captures some of the agony and guilt attending those who dare to deviate from societal expectations: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. It is a collection of 16 well-written and generally thoughtful essays -13 from women, and 3 from men- about choosing not to have children. None are from paedophobes; and only a few are from those who decry the notion of pregnancy in others. They are not outliers –except perhaps on a carefully constructed Bell Curve- nor could they be construed as deviant. Each has merely made a personal decision not to accept the tyranny of the Norm.

The essays took me back to the early days of my practice, when, as a newly minted obstetrician, the very idea that someone would not want to have a child at some stage in her life, was anathema… Well, perhaps curious would describe it better –memorable, at any rate. And yet, it was not unknown. It was always a difficult decision in those faraway times to accede to a request for sterilization in a young woman. Contraception, yes, and although this closed the door effectively, it did not lock it. We were suffocatingly parental in those days: we knew she might change her mind –she was young and inexperienced, after all. Like a child, she had to be protected; it was our responsibility to keep her future mutable and open. We –society- were the guardians of that door…

But there are surely two issues at play here. It is one thing to criticize a decision made prematurely –before the kaleidoscope of life has fully displayed, when the future is more chiaroscuroid, more obscure and uncertain- and another developed in that fullness of time when a considered, even retrospective analysis of the factors leading to the choice can bear fruit.

This, too, can seem arbitrary, I realize. Is there a difference between a thoughtful twenty-five year old woman who -in her mind at any rate- has weighed the risks and benefits of having a baby and decided against it, and a forty-five year old who, on looking back at the way her life has unfolded, is grateful and reconciled to never having a child? It is a vexing question on several levels, I think.

In these days of autonomy and non-maleficence when it is considered medically paternalistic and politically incorrect to suggest that a decision need not be vetted by experience, we forget the other ethical duty of a health care provider at our –her- peril: beneficence –serving the best interests of the patient. It seems to me that this entails both a mature and non-directive dialogue and a list of other, more malleable options that would not only adequately serve her needs, but would also allow for change at any stage. Some form of reliable and non-intrusive contraception, for example, might respect her desire to avoid pregnancy, and yet enable some flexibility should she change her mind, or harden her decision for a permanent solution.

But I have to confess that I am still troubled. On the one hand, it seems to me that wisdom is the ability to judge a situation based both on knowledge of what it entails, as well as experience of how it usually turned out in the past. It is why elders were revered in the days before the plethora of information technology that assails us today. I am trying not to be Ludditic here but what the elders contributed, that Google often does not, is digestion. Analysis over time and place. Evaluation. Information can be coloured by current trends and bent by traditional assumptions –but of course so can needs. We must not forget that.

I have always been leery of ‘facts’ divorced from context. Are they then still facts or do they inhabit some terra incognita we have yet to fully occupy? A territory of collation, a thesaurus that is able to list endless variations on whatever theme we decide applies to us, so we can pick and choose the reality we prefer?

It is not the decision to have, or not to have a child that should preoccupy us, but rather the reason it has been chosen. And for such an important life-changing resolution, the depth and –dare I say- maturity of  thought that has gone into the consideration is paramount. It is not, nor should be allowed to fall under, the purview of political correctness and thereby escape a more cautious and examined approach. There is no correct answer, no unquestionable myth that can justify any position. We may have a spur to prick the sides of our intent, to paraphrase Hamlet, but it is a different one for each of us. We must take care that we, and those we counsel, are not –Hamlet again- hoisted with our own petards.

The Medical Student

She was not old for a medical student I suppose, although her face spoke of experience far beyond her years. But how do you measure age in a profession that cherishes the wisdom and equanimity that so often accompany Time’s passage? No, she was not old, but nor did she possess the naïveté that so often colours the awkward period of youth; she was, in a way, just Maria: confident, inquisitive, but neither gullible nor easily swayed from an opinion once she had weighed the evidence.

Short, with straight brown hair to match, she was dressed in what I would call an unobtrusive fashion –not meant to draw attention to herself but to enable her to emerge from the shadows with dignity should it be required. Only the short white coat so indicative of her student status and which I suggested she remove before seeing patients, would have marked her as out of place in an office that otherwise spoke of the ordinary. I’ve always felt that patients would be more accepting of the student’s presence if they were perceived as being part of the process of consultation with a specialist, not an artifice. Not an appendage. Not an add-on.

Maria sat politely against the wall, legs crossed and a smile tattooed on her lips as she listened to the first of my patients describe how she had finally decided she needed another checkup and a pap smear. For some reason, her family doctor had not felt comfortable in acceding to her request. Maria studied her so intensely it made me nervous.

“What are you using for contraception?” I asked as part of the history.

Janet, who looked  forty or so, but was really 28, just shrugged. She was comfortable with the question; she was comfortable with men who asked them. “I try to get them to use condoms, but…” Maria’s eyes opened wide at this, but she refrained from saying anything. I could see it was an effort for her, though.

As I progressed through the history, it became obvious that Janet was struggling with many issues, but I was impressed that she was trying to solve them bit by bit. Life was not easy for her but she was obviously trying to take control of what little she could. I was just one stage in that process…

After I had examined her, done the pap smear and cultures for infection, and given her the form for the lab to take some blood to rule out other conditions to which her lifestyle had made her unduly susceptible, I sat her down in the office again to discuss her needs.

A broad smile creased her face and her eyes narrowed almost seductively. “Is this where you try to convince me to stop the drugs, and follow the straight and narrow, doc?” There was a fatalism in her tone; she’d heard it all before –many times. Too many times. “…‘Cause you know it’s not gonna happen. I’m just trying to keep myself alive until I decide to change. If I decide. Nobody understands…” Her expression didn’t waiver, but I could tell she was on the brink of tears as she reached for the faded coat she’d draped over the chair. “And there’s nothing you can do until I decide, you know.”

And she was right –all I could do was support her until she was ready. We lived on separate sides of a river that was so wide in most places that it couldn’t be bridged. I felt like reaching across the desk and touching her hand to show her I understood, but I stopped myself. However well-intentioned my gesture, it might be misinterpreted –it was a prologue for most of the men she had encountered… So I just smiled in a lame attempt at encouraging her. “If you ever need to talk, Janet…” I said as she stood up before we could discuss anything further. I don’t even know why I said that -it seemed so utterly inadequate to her needs. I told myself I was only a gynaecologist and that she would require far more than I could ever hope to offer. But I still felt humbled and my specialist arrogance melted away as she left the room.

But just as she was about to leave, she turned and smiled briefly at me. Not seductively –not even out of politeness- but there was gratitude in that smile. Maybe she was just happy that I hadn’t tried to change her like her GP, or that I was willing to wait for her -treat her like an adult capable of making her own decisions. I fancied I could see some hope in her eyes before they hardened to face the world outside.

I’d intended to engage Maria in the conversation with Janet but it all happened so quickly I didn’t get a chance.

Maria stared at me as Janet disappeared through the door. She seemed angry. “So what are you going to do now?” It was not said with kindness. It was not said out of curiosity; she had embedded an accusation in it. A condemnation. The tone was polite, but the insinuation was contempt. I was reminded of that speech by Macbeth: ‘Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not…

“Janet has to want to change,” I said. It was a weak reply, but I already felt depressed.

“And until then..?” She said it sweetly enough, but I could hear the anger in her voice.

I sighed and looked at her. “What would you do, Maria?”

I sensed she wanted to throw up her hands and pace around the room, but I could see she was trying to control herself. “Well, talk to her social worker, for one thing…”

“And tell her what, exactly? That Janet took a small first step to help herself? That she seems to be developing a little bit of insight? That I, for one, see the glimmerings of hope that she will change?”

Maria’s eyebrows shot up. “Change?” –she almost spit the word at me. “How can you say that? We’ve been facilitating her, not trying to help her!”

I took a deep breath and relaxed my face. Maria was not as mature as I had thought. “We’ve been listening to her, Maria.” I smiled to diffuse her eyes. “How often do you think somebody has actually listened to her before? Not tried to change her, warn her, or use her?” I softened my expression even more. “The initial step in any change is actually hearing what the other person has to say. Hearing what she thinks and why. Listening; not judging. Not continually interfering, continually trying to impose our idea of the world on her.”

Maria’s whole demeanour tensed with the injustice of it all. “But we didn’t even get a chance to listen! She walked out of here before…”

“Before I had a chance to advise her? Tell her what she should do?” I shook my head slowly.

“But…”

“But sometimes we have to be patient, Maria. Advise when asked; help when needed.” I shrugged to indicate how hard that was. “She may never change –never want to change. We need to try to understand that… Understand her.”

I don’t think Maria understood; I don’t think she felt her own opinion was acknowledged either. I could tell that in her eyes, I had failed as a doctor. Failed as a person. I had committed with her the same sin that I had committed with Janet: not acting on what I had heard.

Maybe she’s right; maybe one’s own principles should be subsumed in those generally held by a society. And yet… And yet I can’t help thinking of Shakespeare again -this time, Polonius in Hamlet: This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man… –or woman, in this case

If age has taught me anything, it is that we live in our own worlds for a reason… I think we must sit with the door open. And if Janet wanders back..? Well, I will be here.