Should You Wish Upon a Star?

I’m of two minds about magic. On the one hand, it seems too good to be true -too naïve and unexamined, too much like Santa Claus; but there’s a part of me that wants to believe in another world where faeries dance on dew-soaked blades of moonlit grass, and bird song fills the dawn forest as a paean to the aborning light. In a place -or was it a time– where anything was possible, because no one had proven that it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, I grew up and found an adult proof -or thought I had. I suppose most of us do, though. It’s not even a choice -as we wend our ways through the interstices of everyday life, we shed those things which impede our progress -like a shirt on a hot day, unregarded magic is in corners thrown, to paraphrase Shakespeare. Our route is littered with it, if we cared to look. But we don’t anymore. We can’t be bothered.

And yet, in my darker days, when I find myself staring into the ordered chaos that encloses me like a cape, I sometimes wonder if it was all a mistake. Perhaps we were meant to keep a little in reserve. A curtain we could peek behind in times of need. In times when we realize that what we have is not enough… or, rather, too much.

In one such mood, I happened upon an article written by Frank Klaassen, an associate professor of History in the University of Saskatchewan, entitled The Magic of Love and Sex, who characterizes himself as a scholar of medieval magic. I have to admit, that anybody who purports to be able to unmask the most mysterious trappings of an enchanted, faraway age has got my ear -or in this case, at least, my eyes. https://theconversation.com/the-magic-of-love-and-sex-91749

He says that ‘[…] passing the magazine stand at the checkout counter is like stepping back in time.’ Both the men’s and the women’s magazines promise to divulge secret methods of procuring unattainable things we all want, yet could only dream of: sex, power, influence… ‘Bronislaw Malinowski [a Polish-born British social anthropologist] says that the function of magic is to ritualize optimism, to enhance “faith in the victory of hope over fear.” By this he means that when we perform magic, we ritualize our hopes, even if that ritual itself produces no effects.’

‘There is a massive modern industry that leverages our vulnerabilities. Hundreds of scientifically unproven techniques offer not only power over love and sex, but health, wealth, good luck, influence over other people, improving appearance, intelligence and public speaking, assuring happiness and protection of self and family.

‘Modern books on magic like Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and New Age handbooks like Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization have become classics over the past 40 years and have sold millions of copies. They cover pretty much the same ground. With few exceptions, the goals of medieval magic were identical to these personal growth manuals from the 1970s, and fulfilment in love tops the list.’

But interestingly, similar to today, Klaassen says that scholars back then were also critical of magic and superstition. ‘Medieval philosophers expended a lot of ink demonstrating how seemingly miraculous things were just natural effects […] To respond to these attacks, writers of medieval magic books often did exactly what their modern counterparts do —they tried to make them look like they were scientific. They used scientific ideas and language.

‘In comparison, one would think that modern people would be far less interested in magic, particularly given our advanced sense of how the physical world functions and the scientific educations we all get in public school.’

But, I think the crux of his point is to compare the two modes of thinking, and whether things have changed all that much over the years. ‘[…] it challenges the idea that scientific thinking somehow banishes magical thinking. Clearly, it doesn’t.’

‘[…] Modern science may have helped us live longer but it hasn’t made illness and death any less inevitable. It certainly hasn’t made it possible to make ourselves more wealthy, desirable, charismatic, intelligent or successful in love.

From one perspective, love magic is biological. We are biologically programmed to try anything that might help us reproduce ourselves. Skepticism would just get in the way of that. Hope, on the other hand, keeps us creatively trying things out and doing whatever it takes: The perfect clothes, the right music, giving flowers, perfume, beautiful words, … or magic.

From another perspective, as Malinowski suggested, magic springs from human qualities that we all value very highly: Optimism, hope and creativeness. Where would we be without those? If our ancestors only stuck to the tried and true, things they knew would not fail, we’d still be in the trees. We’d certainly have no love songs.’

I like the idea that magic is hope. And hope is no less real because what we wish for hasn’t yet happened; there may not be faeries dancing on the lawn at night, but if I want to believe that if I hid out there under a blade of grass one night I would see them, should you lock me up? Or put me on medication? All of us hear stories, some more fanciful than others -and not all of them are as we remember. We colour our narratives with almosts and often sneak in a few might haves to spice the tales. The rest of us wink at the clever interpolations, and then add our own when it’s our turn to speak. Who’s to say what really happened -what might have happened?

There is a ragged border between fact and fancy sometimes, and maybe your misspeak is my magic -or at least my hope. Would you really want to take that away from me… and should you? Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I want to believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies…

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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.

 

Leave Me Alone

I have lived in a hospital as an on-call obstetrician on more days –and nights- than I can count over the years; hospitals were the grudging homes for me ever since medical school and the subsequent ages of specialty training that fell upon me like unbidden hats. And despite the palimpsest of colours I was forced to wear, hospitals have been the lodestars in my ever-changing world.

They weren’t all pleasant, although each beckoned with what seemed, from a distance at least, to be tempting endowments of knowledge and experience. Gifts are gifts, no matter the source, and I accepted each with gratitude, if not a little experientially-acquired caution. But although one must often stride boldly into the unknown to arrive at a destination, adaptation follows close behind. And then comes a fondness for what seemed, initially, to be strange. Chaotic. Frightening. And yet the utility of the situation breeds an eventual reconciliation. The disturbing, becomes assimilated into the quest for advantage. The hope for reward.

At least, that’s how an employee –a doctor or a nurse, especially- might rationalize the initial anxiety in a hospital: ‘short term pain for long term gain’, as the trite political aphorism would have it. But one can only wonder how the experience might strike a person who, travelling along the avenue of illness or accident, is forced to endure the unexpected and probably unwelcome distress.

There was an interesting article in an old BBC News article that questioned whether going into hospital might actually make you sick: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35131678

A Dr. Harlan Krumholz at the Yale School of Medicine became interested in in the statistic that ‘about a fifth of patients who leave US hospitals are back within a month.’ At first glance, this may seem obvious and uninteresting –the original cause for their admission may not have been completely dealt with, or perhaps there were complications from it that only surfaced after their discharge. Indeed, in many countries ‘re-admission rates are taken as a measure of the quality of care a hospital provides.’ But Krumholz realized that ‘only about a third of patient readmissions were related to the original cause of hospitalization. Patients’ reasons for returning to hospital were diverse and linked to their immune systems, balance, cognitive functioning, strength, metabolism and respiratory systems.’ He felt this was an entity unto itself and called it PHS (Post Hospital Syndrome): http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1212324

Basically, it assumes that hospitals unwittingly engender stress in patients by imposing disruptive and often intrusive regimes –some of which could safely be postponed or modified at night, for example. Patients already feel vulnerable and powerless in the face of illness or accident, and few would dare complain for fear of alienating those who are the providers of their badly-needed succour.

*

Vesna was not one of those. From the moment I saw her in the Emergency department with a severe and unresponsive pelvic infection, it was obvious she did not intend to relinquish control. Indeed, it was something of a diplomatic coup that one of the ER docs was able to convince her to allow an intravenous catheter to be inserted into her arm. She had to point out one of the only remaining veins –she knew her arm well- and direct his hands when he tried, unsuccessfully, to enter the tiny vessel that was hidden under a tattoo on the skin above her elbow.

It was around 2 A.M. when my resident called me about her, and just as I entered the little cubicle, someone dropped a large metal pan by the door. Before I could introduce myself she yelled at me. “I’m not gonna use one of those f– things, doc!” and she pointed to the bedpan on the floor.

The nurse looked up apologetically. “No, I’m just taking it out of the room, Vesna. It’s not for you.”

“Do I have to stay down here all night, doctor? It’s too f– noisy!” She said this all too loudly, ostensibly so her voice would be audible above the noise, but despite the outburst, despite the angry expression on her face, for a fleeting moment her eyes seemed to betray her when she glanced at me: they twinkled contritely, as if trying to excuse the behaviour of their owner.

My resident shook his head. There was apparently a bed available for her up on the ward so she’d be moved up shortly.

At hand-over rounds the next morning, the resident looked exhausted. Apparently Vesna had complained that the patient in the bed next to hers was snoring so she couldn’t sleep. And the nurses insisted on talking in the corridor whenever they walked by; the medicine carts they pushed were too noisy; or somebody kept coughing in the next room. So, Vesna demanded a sedative. That, of course, required the okay of a doctor first. And then, later, her IV stopped working –it had been inserted into a vein that would not ordinarily have been used- and the so the resident had been called to order the antibiotics to be given by some other route. The ones she needed were not available by mouth, so the only remaining way was by injection into her muscles. Vesna objected, of course, and so the resident had to go up to the ward again and explain things to her.

The hospital food was certainly not to Vesna’s liking –she said it made her sick- although, in fact, it was probably a side effect of her antibiotics. I’ve never liked institutional food either, but there seemed no end to her complaints while she was in hospital. We learned to tolerate her, of course, but I remember deciding to buy coffee for the resident staff when we discharged her.

I suppose I fell prey to the uncharitable assumption that Vesna was simply a grumpy person –someone whose circumstances had taught her to be suspicious of everything around her; someone who had learned to be tough and difficult to befriend. It was a wall she was forced to live behind -makeup she applied to protect the skin beneath.

She was supposed to come to my office for a follow-up visit a week or so after discharge but I have to admit that I wasn’t surprised when she didn’t show up for her appointment. My secretaries had actually double-booked me for her time, suspecting as much.

A few weeks later, I saw her name on my day sheet again but the woman who sat nervously in the waiting room pretending to be absorbed in a magazine was nothing like the Vesna I’d met in the hospital. This time she was dressed in slim black jeans with a frilly light blue cotton pullover. Her auburn hair was neatly combed and her ears adorned with enormous golden earrings that threatened to snag her curls every time she moved her head. When she saw me approaching, she smiled and stood up to extend her hand.

“I’m sorry I missed my last appointment, doctor,” she said, as soon as we were settled in my office, the embarrassment written in her eyes. “I had to be admitted to another hospital so I couldn’t make it…”

“The infection came back?” I said, concerned that we had discharged her too early.

She chuckled merrily at the thought and shook her head, making the earrings dodge in and out of her curls like it was a game of tag. Then the look of embarrassment returned. “Overdose.” She took a long breath and then shrugged. “Occupational hazard, I’m afraid.” She looked out of the window behind my seat for a moment. “Interesting, though…” she said slowly and deliberately, as if something had just occurred to her. “Same source, same amount… Never happened before and my boyfriend was okay so he couldn’t have cut it with bad shii…” She glanced at me and quickly corrected herself mid-word. “…ah, stuff… so I wonder how I could have overdosed.” She sat back in her chair and shrugged it off. “Maybe somebody’s trying to tell me to change my ways while I still can, eh?” She giggled like a school girl -and for a moment, she was.

Was she a victim of PHS or, in her case at least, the recipient of an opportunity? Were the two events even related, or in my rosy-eyed naiveté, am I projecting my own hopes on an otherwise indifferent world? I don’t know, of course, because I never saw Vesna again, but I’d like to think that something changed her. But for the better this time… Could PHS do that too?

I remembered the words of Emily Dickinson:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul                                                                                    And sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.’

 

Staying in Touch

In the endless dark of night, belief that there will be a morning is sometimes all that sustains us. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, as Alexander Pope declared in one of his essays -and that is occasionally all there is. When Medicine fails, the understandable temptation is to turn to alternatives; when inductive reasoning seems insufficient (compilation and collation of observations to arrive at a tentative conclusion) then perhaps the converse might be helpful: deductive reasoning (start with a conclusion and then look around for supporting evidence). The Scientific Method tends to use more of the former than the latter to test hypotheses, although to be honest, it is often a melange. But to start with a conclusion and then to attempt to prove it can be a recipe for failure –or worse, deceit.

Alternative Medicine appears to be guilty of the latter -although whether by intent or naivete can be argued, I suppose- but it does seem to attract a certain edge of the population. I, for one, am not a believer, but to set the stage, perhaps a definition of alternative medicine would be helpful. The description in Wikepedia (sorry!) is as good as any I’ve seen: ‘Alternative medicine is any practice that is perceived by its users to have the healing effects of medicine, but does not originate from evidence gathered using the scientific method, is not part of biomedicine, or is contradicted by scientific evidence or established science. It consists of a wide range of healthcare practices, products and therapies, ranging from being biologically plausible but not well tested, to being directly contradicted by evidence and science, or even harmful or toxic.’

In this essay, I don’t intend to debate the merits or harms of alternative strategies for health, but merely to illustrate the pitfalls that can result when they are espoused too vigorously -when hope triumphs over experience. When, to paraphrase Macbeth, Physic is thrown to the dogs.

*

I really liked Loretta; I could tell that as soon as I saw her in the waiting room chatting to her neighbours. A slender young woman barely grazing her twenties, she had short brown hair and was dressed in jeans and a yellow tank-top. Her face was all smile –or, rather, all teeth and tongue, with large, brown eyes occasionally mobilized to emphasize some point or other. The whole room seemed alive with laughter and focussed on her every word, her every gesture –and there were a lot of those. Her body was in constant motion, sometimes pointing with a ring-laden hand, then gesticulating with her arms as her bracelets clinked and ran up and down her forearms like beads on an abacus; even her legs were integral as she swung them back and forth to illustrate a point with her dainty sandal-clad feet – an actress playing to an adoring audience. I almost felt embarrassed as I crossed the room to lead her offstage. She actually waved to them as she left; I half expected her to blow kisses.

She sat on the edge of her chair in my office clutching a backpack in one hand and a phone in the other as if to relax was anathema to her. “You seemed quite popular out there,” I said, nodding towards the corridor that led to the waiting room.

Her smile broadened at the compliment. “I like to stay in touch with everybody… and everything,” she added, as if it were a necessary addendum, then filled the time between our words with safaris into the uncharted depths of her pack. “I’ve come here for a pap smear,” she said as she saw me scrolling on the computer. “That’s what my GP says, but it’s really because he doesn’t know what to do with me…” She let the sentence dribble to a close without a firm indication she was finished with it. Like it was still a work in progress. So I waited. A text arrived on her phone and she blinked at me and proceeded to thumb a rapid, practiced reply almost as if she was scratching her leg without thinking about it.

Still she said nothing, but instead inspected the room, starting with the pictures on the wall and then progressing to the the plants on my desk, inspecting them one by one, perhaps thinking I was going to quiz her about the office. “What is it that concerns your GP, Loretta?” I felt I had to say something.

She shrugged goodnaturedly and her eyes migrated to my face. “I suspect she thinks I’m too self aware…” She giggled at the thought, then noticed the puzzled expression that I had tried to disguise. “I like to be on top of things…” She immediately blushed and corrected herself. “You know, like my health and stuff.”

I smiled to encourage her to explain.

“Like, you have to be careful about what you put in your body. I mean they’re putting additives in everything. Bodies need help getting rid of all the toxins that build up: detox regimes.” I grimaced inwardly, but maybe she saw the shadows. “My GP said that was nonsense, too, but I know I feel better after a cleanse,” she said, momentarily dropping the smile and folding her arms across her chest with the bracelets following close behind for emphasis.

I tried to disguise a deep breath. “I see…” –but actually I didn’t– “Is there any reason he felt that a gynaecologist could be of some help?”

“Help?” she said with a sharp intake of breath, as if I had really not understood a word of what she’d been telling me.

“You know,” I quickly added, “Help with something that you’ve been unable to deal with using your…” I hurriedly rummaged around in my head for an appropriate word –one that wouldn’t seem to insult her, yet wouldn’t suggest acquiescence either. “…Your strategies.” I thought that sounded neutral and not overly critical. I wanted to keep her on my side to see if there really was anything I could do to help. She could sort out the knowledge base for herself later.

Before she could respond, another text arrived, prompting yet another seemingly mindless flurry of thumbs to resolve the issue. She didn’t apologize and I realized that this was just part of the background in her life -like traffic noise, or maybe someone bumping into her in a crowd. She found time to shrug at me again, but whether to acknowledge the text she had just answered or as a way of answering my question was hard to tell. “I’ve been getting a lot of yeast infections lately, so I tried another cleanse.”

Her eyes jumped onto mine to see if I needed any clarification, and rested there when my face didn’t light up sufficiently with comprehension. We live in different worlds they said.

Toxins,” she added, like she was talking about the elephant in the room. “The bowel walls get encrusted with stuff and overgrowth of candida is one of the crusts.” She smiled innocently, almost as if she was going to admit to sneaking a cookie between meals. “I tried dietary modifications for months: fruit fasts, fiber-only diets… but no matter, I still got itching down there. So I tried a coffee enema once a week for a month. Then a probiotic one for almost three months.” She jangled her bracelets again as she thrust her arms upwards to suggest what else could she do. “Nothing worked, so finally I tried an enema using an antifungal solution that my girlfriend told me about. Jeez, try to keep one of those puppies inside for 15 minutes! I only managed 8…” She noticed the horrified expression that I’d tried desperately, but unsuccessfully to camouflage. “Eight minutes, doctor –not eight enemas!” She shrugged again –it was another form of speech for her, evidently. A sort of body text, I suppose. “But when I told my GP about it, he got really mad. “Of course there’s yeast in the bowel; we all have yeast in our bowels, he said… No he yelled that at me,” she added after thinking about it for a second.

“So I told him about the enemas they’re using nowadays for –I forget the infection…”

Clostridium difficile,” I added helpfully, and also to show that I was still listening.

“Those are special fecal enemas, he yelled back at me, and only for a special problem!  Anyway, you can’t get rid of vaginal yeast with those silly health-product enemas, he added. Not even the probiotic ones. He said ‘probiotic’ more softly, though, as if maybe he wasn’t so sure about that one.” Her face perked up again as the indignation faded and the verbal catharsis revived her spirits. “The yeast down below isn’t so bad right now –it seems to come and go. But no thanks to him -none of his prescriptions helped…” She shrugged a text at me. “That’s why I tried colonics dead last. I mean I believe in probiotics, and I hate enemas.” She studied my face for a moment. “Hey, I was desperate.” Another jingle from her arms. “There’s gotta be another way to go. Despite what all my friends say, I still think enemas are unnatural, don’t you?”|

I have to say it was hard not to roll my eyes. I realized I had a chance to convert her to our side of the fence if I was careful. And tactful. “I agree with you about probiotics, Loretta.” She smiled and nodded her head at my unexpected response. “The idea, of course, is to adjust the biota –the bacterial flora of whatever organ- to be able to suppress other unwanted organisms. But you can’t just use off-the-health-food-shelf probiotics –one type doesn’t do all jobs, just like one antibiotic doesn’t fit every occasion.” I glanced at her face to see if she was listening or playing with her phone again. She was listening. Staring at me in disbelief, actually. But in this Google age, I knew I had to be careful -I could only remember one article I’d read and that might already be outdated. For that matter, I couldn’t even recall where or when I’d seen it –the Canadian Medical Association Journal, maybe. But then again, she probably didn’t really have a yeast infection anyway…

“And the other thing is that good studies in this field are hard to find.” I hesitated a moment for effect -timing is everything. “I seem to remember there are a couple of probiotic regimes that have undergone scientific investigations. They were published a few years ago in…Ahh, the Canadian Medical Association Journal. You can look it up, I imagine.” The long-winded, but welcome news had forced her back into the chair, her phone into her pack, and the pack onto the floor. Then a look of concern replaced the incredulous rictus. “But how are the new bacteria going to be able to compete with all that toxic stuff in the area now? It might poison them, or overwhelm them before they even get a chance to set up a new colony.”

It was my turn to look concerned –well, at least curious. I’ve never understood the toxin theory promulgated by many of the alternative medicine practitioners. “How do you know there are toxins, or whatever, in the area, Loretta?” I sat back in my chair, convincing myself I had her.

Her eyes rolled as her hands reached into the pack at her feet in response to a muffled text. I assumed she was reacting to the disturbance, but suddenly realized it was me they couldn’t believe. She closed them slowly, patiently, in a slow motion blink and then opened them again, this time filled with all the sure and certain knowledge of youth. Her body texted me before any words left her mouth. “How do I know there’s still stuff living there now after months of using my colonic ‘strategies’ as you put it? Ever had a retention enema, doctor?”