The Caesarian Path

The Caesarian section has a fascinating, if largely apocryphal history. In all likelihood it was probably a procedure of last resort to save the unborn child when its mother was already dead or near death. That the famous Julius Caesar –like Shakespeare’s MacDuff- was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripped’ seems unlikely, however appealing the etymology. In fact, the name may well derive from the Latin verb ‘caedere’ –to cut- and hence the cognomen (originally a nickname). Pliny the Elder, according to Wikipedia, ‘refers to a certain Julius Caesar (an ancestor of the famous Roman statesman) as ab utero caeso, “cut from the womb” giving this as an explanation for the cognomen “Caesar” which was then carried by his descendants.’

At any rate, before the days of appropriate antisepsis let alone adequate analgesia, the survival rate for both the mother and baby would have been dismally low. And despite isolated reports of its use throughout recorded history in such diverse countries as India, China, and even Babylon, it was always a procedure of desperation. A triumph, as Samuel Johnson once wrote in another context, ‘of hope over experience.’

Unfortunately it has now become merely a triumph of experience -a default position assumed at what seems to be the slightest provocation. The fact that it is an operation that can be booked in advance under some circumstances, and therefore superimpose a degree of predictability on the scaffolding of the anticipated chaos of labor, has been seen as desirable in some quarters. And in fairness, there are those for whom labor carries undue risks for either mother or baby and its avoidance would be prudent if not lifesaving. The issue, I think, is in the interpretation of risk.

The other, perhaps more problematic concern, is that of choice. At least in a system of limited resources, or one in which the public purse is providing medical coverage, one could ask whether an elective Caesarian section for no other compelling obstetrical reason than patient choice, is a sustainable option. Or even a desirable one.

So, what about in a user-pay system? Is it merely a matter of supply and demand: build more hospitals to accommodate the needs and whims of those who can afford them? Is that an efficient use of their resources? Is it even an ethically defensible position? The matter has finally prompted the Brazilian government to wade in, as an article in the July 7/15 BBC news reports:

Of course, there are many reasons for elective Caesarian sections –some of which are the result of previous and unsuccessful attempts at vaginal delivery that necessitated Caesarian deliveries at that time. The desire to avoid a similar and frustrating trial of vaginal delivery is certainly understandable –if not always necessary- under those circumstances. These are the so-called elective repeat Caesarians. Others, as I indicated, are obstetrically mandated because of developing or pre-existing risk factors –once again, hard to argue against. There is an interesting and informative article that attempts to put the Canadian experience (2007-2011) into perspective –a classification system (the Robson Classification System) that can be used to make international comparisons in Caesarian section rates:

But getting back to the situation in Brazil. As the BBC article suggests, ‘Eighty-five per cent of all births in Brazilian private hospitals are caesareans and in public hospitals the figure is 45%’. And the new government rules ‘…oblige doctors to inform women about the risks and ask them to sign a consent form before performing a caesarean. Doctors will also have to justify why a caesarean was necessary. They will have to fill in a complete record of how the labour and birth developed and explain their actions.’ That they may not have been doing this routinely before is troubling, to say the least.

Also, ‘Each pregnant woman will now be assigned medical notes which record the history of her pregnancy, which she can take with her if she changes doctors.’ I would have thought this practice would have been universal and intuitive -without the need for a government fiat.

But, as worrisome as all of this seems, there is another, perhaps more subtle pressure on the woman to opt for a Caesarian delivery in Brazil: ‘Women who want to give birth naturally in a private hospital have reported finding all the beds are reserved for scheduled deliveries. There have been numerous reports of women going into labour without a caesarean scheduled and being forced to travel from hospital to hospital in search of a bed.’ And as Pedro Octavio de Britto Pereira, an obstetrician and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said in an interview with BBC Brazil last year, “The best way to guarantee yourself a bed in a good hospital is to book a caesarean.”

Of course the blame does not wholly fall on the medical profession there –nor even, perhaps, on their preferred management strategies in pregnancy. ‘Researchers say many women also see caesareans as more civilized and modern, and natural birth as primitive, ugly and inconvenient. In Brazil’s body-conscious culture, where there is little information given about childbirth, there is also huge concern that natural birth can make women sexually unattractive.’

It is always dangerous to judge another country and another culture by our own standards. Our own sensibilities. And yet the risks are transnational and universal. They do not disappear simply because of a differing national mythos. Surgery is surgery; complications are inevitable co-travellers with it in spite of all precautions, and good intentions -the hidden, unwanted occupants of every operating theatre. And while we may never be able to stem the tide of primary elective Caesarians –even education on the subject has challenges overcoming fear or fashion- we may be able to convince women that their choice does not come without baggage. Unintended risks. To journey through a new geography, it helps to have thought about it first; planned the route to avoid unnecessary problems; consulted a knowledgeable guide –someone who will travel along with you. And remember what Seneca wrote: ‘Be wary of the man who urges an action in which he himself incurs no risk’.


Medical Revisionism

Words -that’s all they are: sounds that by their very presence magically communicate meaning. They are more than mere noise or background. They are not the wind rustling through the leaves, nor the sounds of a frog in a pond; in a way, they are entities that resolve uncertainty, and in as much as they can be interpreted, contain information. Data. So, in a sense, they transcend Time: the information in the words of an ancient document still exists. But information is subject to interpretation; the same data may be seen as having different meaning as time and societal norms change. But does that change the information conveyed? I think not.

I’ve covered this topic in previous blogs (for example: ) but the topic is a source of continuing intrigue for me, so I was once again interested in seeing it broached in an article in the BBC News last fall:  It seems we are constant and insatiable revisionists. It’s as if by changing the descriptor, we somehow alleviate the pejoration its ancestor accumulated. And yet the information remains; only the colour changes.

I suppose that this is useful, but I can’t help but wonder if there is some other way of doing it. Of course, some words seemed to have been coined originally with a belittling intent -Cripple springs to mind- and even without our penchant for viewing the machinations of history through modern eyes, the word is disparaging; it is simply not fair. It derives from the Old English word crypel which has the suggestion of creeping. It was a condition in clear need of a new term.

Other words were more naively-attempted descriptions –designations that were no doubt thought to help others picture what was being named. There was unlikely to have been any attempt at denigration -despite how they might now offend or upset us. Mongolism is one such term. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary:mongol, or Mongoloid, was adopted in the late 19th century to refer to a person with Down syndrome (named after John L. H. Down [1828–96], the English physician who first described it), owing to the similarity of some of the physical symptoms of the disorder with the normal facial characteristics of eastern Asian people. The syndrome itself was thus called mongolism.’ But the problem remains –what happens when the term ‘Down Syndrome’ itself also becomes offensive?

Sometimes, it seems to me, the words will also change for no apparent reason. Think of the various expression changes for sexual diseases over the years and the somewhat clumsy attempts to strip the prejudice out of them. When I first started medical school, the expression was ‘venereal disease’ –or VD. Then, when that became too pejorative, or at least discriminatory, it morphed into STD (‘sexually transmitted disease’), and currently STI for ‘sexually transmitted infection’… Or am I already out-of-date? The reason for any of these transformations, however, is totally beyond me.

Words, it seems –or maybe it’s me– just can’t keep up. Maybe, like Fashion, they’re bound to change because of user-boredom or a need for novelty, but I think it’s probably deeper than that. I suspect that it relates more to societal attitudes than societal ennui. And I think that it may be a lost cause to expect consistency of usage. As we change our approach to issues and our opinions, so we change our words to describe them. It starts off with the more curmudgeonly amongst us –usually those for whom tradition provides a stable and secure platform- proclaiming the changes to be ‘political correctness’- to use the current phrase. But then, gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, the expression achieves a common parlance and not using it courts sideways glances, or even incomprehension. It is, perhaps, an aurally measurable example of society’s changing attitudes, if not its mores.

My biggest complaint, however –although minor in the scheme of things- is that it seems a waste of perfectly good words. One of my favourite ones ‘awe’ and its brother ‘awesome’ which used to bespeak a form of reverence, was ripped from my useful vocabulary only a few years ago and I’ve never really gotten over it. The words now have little value -they’re the scrapings from a different, grander time. Crumbs. Leftovers.

I am reminded of the words of Moth, the page of the soldier Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost by Shakespeare: ‘They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps.’ 

What’s in a Word?

Alexithymia. Ever heard of it? Me neither. It sounds like one of those words you’d get in a national spelling bee when they’re trying to off you. Fortunately it has a rather pedestrian etymology: ‘a’ meaning ‘without’; ‘lexis’ –speech, or words; and ‘thymos’ – soul, or emotions. In other words: no words for feelings. Hmm… Who would have thought it was a condition? Mind you, since there’s one called anhedonia, the gloves are off.

I’m fairly certain that its shadow would never have darkened my office door, had not a patient pulled it deliberately from her purse while reaching for her phone. Pandora comes immediately to mind, but this lady’s name was Alexis – or, rather, Alexisse as she quickly corrected me- with the accent on the last syllable would you believe? She seemed innocent enough sitting in the waiting room, but in retrospect, she was more a pier in the currents of a hectic room than a middle aged lady. The usual waves of noise and confusion seemed to break over and around her with as little effect as a storm on a breakwater. Throughout the maelstrom, she maintained a smile on her face, but she later admitted to me that it was a well-practiced artifice –a mask that she would always carry with her to help her to blend in.

Her clothes certainly helped as well –a grey skirt worn just below the knees, white blouse buttoned tight around her neck, but loose at the wrist, and black shoes with just a hint of a raised heel. Her light brown hair was short and tidy and her nails long and uncoloured. An average height, she would have melted into any crowd without a trace. Indeed, she followed behind me to my office like a shadow.

I’m describing her like this in the full light of retrospect, however. We always tend to remember things in ways that make sense to us I suspect, although at the time, only the word stood out. She presented as a model patient, and was not at all upset that I was running behind time and was almost an hour late before I was able to see her. “These things happen,” she said with the same smile she’d worn through the whirlwind out front. “I carried a book with me, just in case.”

I brought up her file on the computer as she sat contentedly across the desk inspecting the art work on the walls. I’d not seen her before, but the only thing the family doctor had sent me was the result of a pap smear she’d done recently. Alexisse was a new patient for her as well, and apparently had not had a pap done for over ten years. But worse, the smear was read as showing some malignant cells.

“Did you find the pap smear results?” she suddenly asked, the smile still on her face.

I nodded and looked at her for a moment before speaking. She didn’t seem at all upset so I assumed her GP hadn’t discussed the results with her. Of course the diagnosis was unlikely to be firm until a biopsy of her cervix had been done, so perhaps she had decided to wait until I did that before discussing it with Alexisse.

“Dr. Mandel said you’d be able to confirm the diagnosis with a biopsy.”

The smile never left her face but I was drawn instead to her eyes –they were totally neutral. Cool, if anything. “What did Dr. Mandel say about the pap smear?”

Alexisse shrugged. “Well, for a start, she tried to downplay everything. She said that pap smears are only screening tests and so sometimes they are mistaken…” She stopped for a moment and stared at me with an unchanged expression. “But even when somebody goes to great lengths to paint a black paper white, you know it still ends up looking grey.” Her eyes sought mine to see if I understood.

I approached the topic carefully. “So… What do you think she was trying to tell you?”

Another shrug. “That I have cancer of the cervix.” She said it as if I had asked her about her last period.

I was speechless for a moment. There was no sign that she was upset. No tears. No tightening of her facial muscles. Just the smile –the mask. “You don’t seem very upset. Your family doctor must have done a good job of discussing it with you.”

Alexisse shook her head. “She seemed a little confused about what to say. She asked me if I had any questions, and when I didn’t, said she’d send me to see you.” She stared at me for a while and when she saw that I looked puzzled as well, sat back in her chair.

“I have alexithymia,” she said as she reached nonchalantly into her purse to turn off a phone that was ringing. I must have cocked my head, because her expression intensified. “It’s a condition that makes it difficult to feel emotions –even identify them as such. I’ve learned to put a smile on my face along with my makeup in the morning.”

I started to ask if it was a type of autism, but she saw the word forming in my mouth and waved it away. “Only half of us with the condition are autistic, if that’s what you’re going to ask…” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m sure it’s a spectrum disorder –worse in some, less in others.” The smile appeared again. “And the next question you’re going to ask is about my name. Isn’t it a little suspicious that my name is almost the same as the condition? I mean I can almost see everybody thinking it. Go online and you’ll see the community calls its members ‘Alexes’. It’s why I’ve started pronouncing my first name differently…” She sighed briefly. “I don’t think the condition is even accepted by mainstream psychiatrists yet. It wasn’t in the DSM IV at any rate… But I have to admit I haven’t looked lately.”


She crossed her arms and stared out the window. “I’ve always wondered about why everybody except me seemed to get excited about things. I can’t remember ever being angry, or crying at a movie. People thought I was weird.” She shifted her position on the chair. “Anyway, I looked up the etymology of Alexis –which is how my parents spelled the name- and realized it came from the Greek for ‘without speech’. It didn’t take Dr. Google very long after that to introduce me to alexithymia.

“And no, I haven’t had a formal diagnosis. Dr. Mandel asked me about that.”

I sat back slightly on my chair to get the computer screen out of the way. “Well, frankly I’m more concerned with doing a biopsy as soon as possible than with any personality disorder you might have…” I wanted her to know that the most important thing to think about at that moment was her health. I meant well, but her facial expression changed immediately. She looked almost angry –hurt, at the very least.

“Personality disorder? And that I might have?” Her whole body tensed at the perceived insult. “I think you’re being entirely too insensitive, doctor!” She shook her head slowly. “Just like my family doctor. Now you see why I don’t go to doctors very often.” She started to get up from her seat. “Your secretary can let me know when you’re going to do the biopsy,” she said, still shaking her head in disbelief. “You all seem to ignore who I am for what I have…” She fixed me with a glare that almost pinned me to my seat then left the room with a toss of her head… Anger?

She never showed up for any of the biopsy appointments despite multiple phone calls from both our office and her family doctor’s. I can only hope she sought help from someone who listened to her pleas for understanding. I don’t know whether she actually had alexithymia or some other mental issue such as schizophrenia, but it clearly seemed to interfere with her ability to process information appropriately. I’ve since learned that alexithymia is often associated with other psychiatric disorders, so perhaps she had decided to fixate on a more acceptable but obscure variation. Maybe she’d been wearing another mask -one that even she had not suspected. Or one that she found too difficult to acknowledge…

I also Googled the word and discovered that the BBC had an article on it that was dated a month or so prior to her visit: I remain open to convincing, but I keep remembering what Iago said in Shakespeare’s Othello: ‘I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at. I am not what I am.

The Solopsist

I have always been influenced by something Lewis Thomas, the American polymath writer-physician once said at a lecture I attended. He felt he would be better served by a doctor who had read Shakespeare than someone who had merely focussed all of his formative years on learning medicine. His point, I think, was that to really help people you had to understand who they were, what they thought, how they lived. We are all more than our bodies.

Me? I have always loved philosophy, cherished its Greek etymological roots: love of wisdom, and at least pretended I understood how it might help me to interact with my patients: to accept all points of view with equanimity –or to spell it as Sir William Osler did in his famous essay, Aequanimitas –imperturbability.

Philosophy helps you to do that, but only if you don’t get too enmeshed in the details. Only if you don’t privilege one tenet over another. Only if you never accept that you are at the end of the journey. Or meet someone who is

My conversations with patients have changed over the years from that of an expert trying to impress, to a teacher trying to listen -the difference between an encyclopedia and a manual, I suppose. Part of it is age, I’m sure, but a better part is the belief that, as Osler put it: “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.” And although directive listening works best, sometimes the topic turns an unexpected corner and a tangent is entered. I like tangents but not in the office -they can terminally entangle the discussion. They are like blackberry bushes in a field: I try to stay away from them.

There was a patient who wouldn’t let me, though. A PhD candidate in Philosophy, she had come to see me because of pelvic pain. And while she readily conceded that she was under considerable stress writing her dissertation, she felt that her problem was reality-based. I should have just written it down; I shouldn’t have asked what she meant…

“Reality is the sum total of all that is,”  she said, settling back all too comfortably in her chair. “The question, of course, is does it include potentiality –all that might be, or could be imagined to be?”

Of course.

She closed her eyes, for a moment as if digesting the profundity of what she had just said, and then opened them suddenly and stared at the ceiling. “But our realities differ, don’t they? I mean, you inhabit a different mental world than me; you can no more apprehend my sensations than I can yours. We are on different sides of a wall.”

She had to be kidding; I didn’t ask anything like that. But nonetheless, I felt it incumbent upon me to defend my profession –my humanity, for that matter. I decided to sit back in my chair as well- fight opaque answer with precise question. “But surely if you really believed that I couldn’t appreciate your pain, you wouldn’t have come here.” I then pasted on my most innocent smile. “And anyway, I don’t have to feel your pain, just accept that you are experiencing it and take it from there.” I put on a more contemplative, but satisfied smile.

My answer didn’t faze her in the slightest. I think she had her rebuttal ready before my smile had even fully blossomed. It started with a deep theatrical sigh. “Do you ever wonder if we define the world, doctor –our own world, that is?” She was sitting on the opposite side of the desk from me, but suddenly she leaned forward and put her elbows on it to fix me with a stare that would have done Medusa proud. I even stiffened reflexively.

“Don’t we all define our worlds?” I said, rather proud of my response.

“Yes, but differently.” She looked as intense as her words. “Pain has a different meaning to each of us: a different feeling, a different impact… it is only an If  to anybody but myself: If, as you say, you have pain; if as you assert, the pain is seven out of ten… If all of these things are as you tell me, I have only your word to go on. There is no objective way of demonstrating your thesis. So aren’t you left with the same undefinable as you started..?”

Wow. And to think I was only going to ask her how long she’d had the pain. She ended her explanation rather tentatively, thank god, because I had lost her shortly after her first attempt at clarification. I began to wonder if this dissemblage was a PhD syndrome: full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing –practice for the defence of her thesis. Equivocation. Obfuscation. Playing with words like others play with cards.

Sometimes, however, it is necessary to find out more about the pain than its meaning. I wanted to pin her down on the more mundane aspects of her symptoms: more like where than why. Or when, not if. It occurred to me that her road to if  was not the road to solution and I was trying to figure out how to phrase it more philosophically when she straightened in her chair as if she’d suddenly received an electric jolt and stabbed me with her eyes.

“I realize that my approach to pain is different from yours, doctor, but the reason just occurred to me: I have defined it that way. Not you; not your reality. Mine… I am the one at fault.”

I tended to agree with her, although I probably wouldn’t have put it that way. “So…” -I sensed an opportunity when her face wrinkled as she thought through the ramifications of her enlightenment… A word-gap- “Where, exactly does…”

But she saw through my plan, and the door closed again. “You see I create the reality in which I suffer…” She paused, but not long enough for me to remember what I was going to ask, let alone to say it. “And so by coming here, I define you in a way… Both you and your response… Do you see what I mean?” She said it with such hope in her face that I almost said yes.

And then, just as suddenly, her face fell on hard times and the intensity disappeared. “But despite my solopsism, I still have pain.” Gradually, her expression refocussed like a magnifying glass and I could see her deep brown eyes dissolve in tears. “Can you help me even from your side of the wall?”

Solopsism? I smiled a real smile and nodded. I looked up the word as soon as I got home.