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 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.

The dangers of perceived wisdom

The Court of Public Opinion -an interesting phrase to be sure. It implies the judgemental assessment of an action, an idea -an opinion- by society at large. An interpretation, not necessarily impartial or even appropriate. A reaction, really, to something that stands out as different in some way from that Public’s perceived norms.

A Culture’s value system is usually encapsulated in what sociologists have termed its folkways -unconscious guides of conduct and thinking- and its mores -its more important customs. These have an even greater significance than may seem obvious at first glance: they are assumed, taken for granted and thus largely unexamined. And of course they vary from country to country, culture to culture -although less so nowadays with our ubiquitous interconnectedness; they are what have always made foreign travel so exciting. So broadening: that others espouse something terribly alien to what we have been acculturated to accept… to expect…  Epiphanous that our own customary behaviour is actually heretical somewhere else. That norms, in fact, aren’t necessarily normative.

All of this suggests that societal expectations can vary; not all values transcend geography; ideas that once held sway are ultimately mutable -inevitably changing as society itself evolves. But existent mores are powerful creatures nonetheless; they channel behaviours and engender punishments for perceived transgressions. When an act conflicts with canon, there are consequences -if only those of guilt and remorse, or the necessity of an obsequious denial of responsibility.

And once an act is deemed aberrant, anomalous -or just plain wrong– it is anathema to be seen or suspected of performing it. Think of our current attitude to, say, drinking and driving: years ago it was a subject of humorous tolerance; now it incurs not only societal, but also legal penalties. The same with such diverse things as domestic violence, or even animal abuse: once occasioning an uncomfortable averting of the eyes, they are now subject to intervention and prosecution.

It is difficult to know or predict what will fall within the purview of acceptable behaviour, but moralists are not without hope that their particular vision will be thus incorporated and often actively pursue campaigns to that end. Smoking is perhaps the quintessential example. While there is little debate about the adverse health issues visited upon the smoker, this was generalized to include his immediate vicinity in an ever-expanding circle that soon came to include the room where he smoked, the adjacent rooms, the floor, the building, and finally the grounds upon which the entire complex rested. Now, with a few disgruntled cynics it is largely accepted as appropriate and well within the bounds of common sense.

Public Health authorities have long recognized the value of trying to convince their public that certain issues should not be ignored. They are so important that to allow the behaviour is tantamount to endangering the health of innocent bystanders: vaccination for example and its benefit of ‘herd immunity’ whereby the more people are protected from some communicable disease, the less of them are available to transmit it. And for some reason while the reliability of vaccination seems to vacillate between acceptable and questionable in some populations, other health issues have been more thoroughly encapsulated into popular wisdom. Smoking in pregnancy, for example, or excessive alcohol consumption -indeed any alcohol consumption- by an obviously pregnant woman, are now behaviours that draw critical glances from friends and even uninvolved strangers. These have apparently slipped into the unconscious mores of a more-observant Society. They are unhealthy acts, selfish acts. We all now know this to be the case… How dare anybody disagree?

And there are even deeper levels of disapproval directed towards illicit drug use in pregnancy. Never tolerated or understood by most of us at the best of times, their use is so unacceptable in pregnancy as to engender almost universal anger and condemnation of the individual and her unfortunate circumstances.

I make these observations, not to deride what most of us would be willing to tolerate in a society, but more to draw attention to what this bias -however appropriate and well-meaning- is likely to do to someone caught on the other side of the equation. The opinions of others -their respect and approbation- is deeply influential, even required by most of us. So much so, the offending behaviour is often hidden or denied in an attempt to be seen to adhere to what is considered ‘proper’. To admit the deviance is to be excluded, criticized, judged.

How then, to help someone who is reluctant to admit to something of which she is ashamed? Something she might feel would prejudice your opinion of her? Your willingness to accept her without contempt? Alter the way you deal with her..?

An obviously thorny issue in obstetrical care, it is also a delicate one. Printed, official-looking prenatal forms with multiple tick-off boxes of questions go some way to alleviating her concerns: her issues might seem to be only a small part of a general interrogation aimed at all pregnant women -not just her… And yet concerns about who might have access to the information in the hospital setting might impede accurate answers. If she admits to drug use, will the hospital social worker take action to apprehend her baby, for example? Will she be treated differently if it is known that she was consuming alcohol in the pregnancy? If she was smoking? If she was the subject of ongoing domestic violence..? Will her personal integrity and wishes be questioned, or even disregarded in the name of some perceived Greater Good? With unknowns like these, would denial be her best option?

And how should the care-giver react? If the patient admits to something unhealthy, something seen as unacceptable, is the greater good to be realized by trying to change her behaviour and perhaps not writing it in the chart to protect her ‘secret’, or by alerting the appropriate authorities: pediatricians, medical specialists, and the like? It is an obvious choice for most of us, I suspect. But if a well-intentioned cover-up is initially chosen at the mother’s behest, suppose despite all efforts, her behaviour persists -does one then direct one’s attention to the baby, the mother… Society? And at what point? Is it a betrayal? It is a decisional labyrinth with untoward consequences down every path.

Ultimately, trust is probably the most likely factor affecting the honesty of the response for both parties. Trust that the person she has delegated to care for her in the pregnancy will honour her; trust that the route taken will be chosen with care and understanding. Trust does not always end at the expected destination of course, but hopefully it will be a fully explained and acceptable compromise. A place where she and her baby can live without regrets: in society… Where else is there, after all?

Taking arms against a sea of troubles

A quasi-existential question: what do you do if you are a doctor dealing with a patient you don’t like? More importantly, however, what if you are a patient, forced by necessity or circumstance to see a doctor you don’t like? This is a question that is often framed in terms of racial, socioeconomic or cultural biases, but it may be something even harder to define, impossible to predict: a  clash of personalities or communication expectations. It should come as no surprise that no matter who we are or what our roles require, we simply do not get along with everybody. None of us.

I realize this can present major problems in emergency situations where choice and time may be severely constrained; hospitals often cover these exigencies with policy statements -directives as to how to proceed. The classic example in my specialty is the issue of a patient in labour whose baby goes into distress and requires some form of timely emergency intervention. It is three in the morning and the obstetrician on call is a male; the patient -perhaps because of culture or previous experience- will accept only a female obstetrician. While every effort is expended to accede to her request, it is sometimes simply not possible. Under such exceptional circumstances and in the interests of the baby in distress, the hospital policy can direct and delegate the emergency care of the woman to the available personnel. Most parents ultimately accept this and are grateful to have a healthy and uncompromised infant from the experience. It’s not a perfect solution, obviously, but under the circumstances, it is an understandable compromise.

There are other situations however, where a middle ground is perhaps more difficult to define and sometimes even more awkward and embarrassing to accept. Let us say, for example, you are referred to a doctor by your GP for a non-life threatening but nonetheless serious and important condition. It is difficult to get an appointment with any specialist, but your doctor assures you the wait is both necessary and worthwhile and sends in a referral. You investigate the doctor online and realize your GP has made a good choice, so you wait the two or three months to see him. But it is apparent within the first few minutes that you don’t like him; you don’t get along; he isn’t what you expected -or wanted- in a specialist. Now what?

Now consider the other side of the equation. You are a doctor seeing patient after patient; most seem appreciative, or at least pretend to be, and this is a balm to your fatigue. And then you notice that the next person, a new patient, is sitting on the other side of the desk staring at you suspiciously, avoiding eye contact when you attempt it, answering questions reluctantly or incompletely. It is clear she doesn’t like you, and yet she has been referred for ongoing care and management.

Both parties are embarrassed, or at least constrained in their response to the situation. To be fair, for the doctor, it’s an easier thing to probe gently at the relationship and try to uncover why there is hostility. Is she merely anxious about her condition, or concerned about its management? Are there questions that need answering? Options that need exploring? Is she not feeling heard for some reason? Is there something that is bothering her that you might be able to address? These are ways that are not unique to medicine to be sure. But if you cannot establish a rapport, if you cannot narrow the gap, would it be wise to continue the consultation? Would either of you benefit? Would whatever treatment suggested even have a chance of success if she was unhappy with you providing it? And what if it didn’t? Would she accept your explanations? Would she seek legal redress?

Of course, the interaction is one of unequal distribution of power no matter how it is disguised. The patient (I dislike the word client) needs something from the doctor and has probably waited a long time for the opportunity; it is important for her not to antagonize. And yet she doesn’t like him. Doesn’t trust him… So how much should she tell him? The information he requests is deeply personal, and confiding in him is out of the question. Does she merely terminate the interview and walk out? What is her GP going to think? Will she have to wait an even longer time to see another specialist? And suppose she doesn’t like that one either…

The problem is a multi-headed Hydra admitting of no easy resolution for either party.  One solution for the doctor, once he has recognized the difficulty, might be to suggest a second opinion -another colleague that she might find more acceptable. But even that is fraught with difficulties if they are all as fully booked as himself and the condition is one that would benefit from a more immediate response.  For the patient, however, there is probably an even greater dilemma if the doctor does not recognize -or care- that there is a problem. How does she let him know that she is not comfortable with him if he seems unaware? Or insensitive..?

Personal interactions are complex; even when overt power is not a factor, influence and authority are often covertly present. We are creatures of strata: higher status in one thing, lower in another; a sorting out of levels is inherent in all communication, all encounters. Medicine seems to engender a dependency that it needn’t: sometimes even a simple statement of concern would initiate a search for a solution.  However, it may be difficult for some people to be assertive -neither aggressive nor overly passive- in negotiating a need that is not being addressed. We are not all capable of that -even doctors…

Recognizing that I do not have a Nobel Prize-winning solution to a problem that has bedeviled mankind since its inception, and understanding that casting about blindly in the dark shadows of mistrust is unlikely to resolve the issue either, I have forsaken the twisted road for the simplest way out of the labyrinth:  I suggest the patient bring a friend or a partner to the consultation -someone who is at least privy to the issues and whom she could trust to mediate on her behalf. She may choose to have him stay in the waiting room, but he is nevertheless close at hand and readily available if needed. The extra -and trusted- surveillance might serve to identify her discomfort and extricate her from her seemingly untenable position. It’s what friends are for: to knit the raveled sleeve of care… Or at least spot the ravel.

The Great Divide

Is there a Great Divide? Strange, perhaps, that the question has continued to haunt me all these years; but you see, if there is, it matters. As I’ve written about before, we each see the world through our own eyes and bring to that perception our own acculturated expectations, our own history, and yes, our own prejudices.

Philosophers have argued about this for centuries: do our sensations carry accurate information about the world, or are they so riven by internal conflicts and so rerouted along personally-determined neural pathways that they are uniquely what we make them? Representative only in that we have defined them as being such.

I do not want to mix up this thought with Plato’s; I’m not talking about his contention that we can only perceive ‘chairs’ -physical objects- but fail to identify the actual reality: ideal forms –chairness, if you will. I am not meaning to confuse the particular with the general.

Nor am I referring to the philosophical conundrum of Names. If I see a colour as red and yet you see that very same colour as blue in your brain, it may be interesting, but not particularly important: we’ve both learned to call it by the same name -a point not lost on Shakespeare, albeit in a changed analogy: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’… There’s no problem with this, largely because we assume the other person is seeing the same thing -she says she is, after all; why would I have reason to doubt it?

The world is sui generis in its apprehension, but does it necessarily follow that this can be attributed to things like differences in age, culture -even gender? Or is it merely that we inhabit different brains? And if so, is this gap bridgeable, or do we forever have to watch each other from opposite sides of the river?

I worry that even if we use a common vocabulary, and agree on definition and assignation, we’re not really out of the woods. Pain, for example: the pain of childbirth. It carries with it a melange of colours: the frustration of its temporal duration, the joy of anticipation, the determination that comes with motivation, but also the agony of contractions straining to overcome the body’s resistance to tissue stretch and damage, the hard-earned, unforgettable lesson and life-long experience that pain is a warning -a warning to stop what you’re doing and escape… Can I as an outsider, as a doctor, as a non-participant, ever truly understand the experience, let alone the meaning of what I see? And if not, where do I fit in? And when? To act without understanding is to risk acting inappropriately, insensitively: the Inadvertent Charity…

So, is there a Divide, and does it matter? If I respond to your pain -if I relieve it even though I can only guess at the depth of its effect on you, does it matter that I could never experience it? Because, as a male, I will never know what it’s like to have, say, irregular, heavy, or painful periods, does it really diminish the adequacy of my response, or change my ability to attend to your world? Does my inability to pass through the door, somehow detract from the action? Demean it?

Yes, I suppose I’ve passed middle age -left it behind the hill, perhaps- and no, I haven’t actually grown up with the same cultures, or traditions as those I see in my office; I am undoubtedly a product of my era, my generation. But how much does that separate me from those I see? Along with accreted knowledge, there is something that comes with age, comes with living in a room long enough to recognize and treasure the things in it. It’s something that used to be valued. Honored. Something that transcends gender, rises above mere culture and tradition. It is experience; it is acquaintance and comfort with difference; it is, I suppose, wisdom.

I will never be a woman; I will never be the same as anybody I see; I will only ever be a person reaching out…

A rather small Divide when you think about it.