Zealandia?

Sometimes things are not as they seem and we see, as the biblical Paul wrote, ‘through a glass darkly’. Sometimes there is more than meets the eye; it is what makes the world so interesting. Maybe it’s why we wrap gifts –or give them, for that matter. They are such stuff as dreams are made on…

I have always loved New Zealand; to me, it is a gift, and so is what I’ve recently learned about its origins. To think that Aotearoa –the land of the long white cloud- is more than the ribbon I can see today, more than the Maori seafarers could see even a thousand years ago when they first arrived, is astonishing, and not a little intriguing. An article in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/17/zealandia-pieces-finally-falling-together-for-long-overlooked-continent?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other) reports on a paper published in GSA Today -the journal of the Geological Society of America: ‘Zealandia covers nearly 5m square km, of which 94% is under water, and encompasses not only New Zealand but also New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, the Lord Howe Island group and Elizabeth and Middleton reefs. The area, about the same size as the Indian subcontinent, is believed to have broken away from Gondwana – the immense landmass that once encompassed Australia – and sank between 60m and 85m years ago.’

Of course, even with satellite-derived bathymetric data, it’s hard to appreciate. And the skeptics, largely silent in their apathy, still sit in the shadows wondering what difference knowing  this  makes. After all, it’s almost all underwater, some of it way underwater –one edge of it ‘can be placed where the oceanic abyssal plains meet the base of the continental slope, at water depths between 2500 and 4000 m below sea level.’ http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/27/3/article/GSATG321A.1.htm Would we be any the worse, the unimpressed might argue, if this remained undetected? Would the ignorance handicap us in some way? Any way…?

In the conclusion to the paper, the authors assert that: ‘As well as being the seventh largest geological continent Zealandia is the youngest, thinnest, and most submerged. The scientific value of classifying Zealandia as a continent is much more than just an extra name on a list. That a continent can be so submerged yet unfragmented makes it a useful and thought-provoking geodynamic end member in exploring the cohesion and breakup of continental crust.’ But it seems to me that questioning the value of this discovery misses the point entirely. Misses, perhaps, the point of gifts and the wrapping in which they are concealed.

Although I am now retired, I am reminded of something that happened late in my career as a gynaecologist and which continues to intrigue me. It makes me wonder just how many other assumptions limit our vision…

Sometimes in medicine, we feel the need to step back from the fray, to attempt an objectivity denied to those whom we treat. It allows us, we explain, to adopt another, more reasoned perspective -one which is unadulterated by their pain and emotion. ‘A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom’ as Hamlet said.

And yet, looking out from the forest of my age, I realize that sometimes people don’t want to be treated as patients, but as people. Fellow travelers. What they want is a knowledgeable friend, not a textbook to which they can turn. One has to learn to gauge the needs…

Jean was not a new patient, but her visits were erratic and unpredictable. Sometimes it was for a pap smear, but more frequently it was for what she would only characterize as an ‘infection’ –“The usual one,” she would inevitably add with an embarrassed laugh. But neither I, nor any of the other doctors she had seen were ever able to find the infection, so it had become a sort of standing challenge as to who would find it first.

Jean was a very fit woman then in her early fifties, who taught both English and drama at a nearby high school. Meticulous about her appearance, I would see her in the waiting room sitting bolt upright, shoulders back, head perched on her shoulders like it was suspended on fine wires to keep it from despoiling the immaculately dressed body below. Her hair was brown and short with each strand assigned an immoveable location lest it be chastened with the brush she kept on her lap in a little purse.

That day, however, I noticed she had added another weapon to the arsenal on her lap –a little pump action plastic bottle, the content of which she would surreptitiously spray on her hands from time to time, followed by a vigorous rubbing as if she had just applied some soothing lotion.

She smiled when she saw me and extended a just-sprayed hand in greeting. “I think I’ve solved my problem, doctor,” she said as soon as we were settled in my office. “I just wanted you to check and see if there was any difference –you know, down…” She blushed before she could finish her sentence. She immediately produced the little bottle and sprayed her hands again. “No infection,” she added, regaining her composure after the little entr’acte.

“And the little bottle?” I had to ask.

“Sanitizer,” she answered proudly. “It’s antibacterial,” she added, and dived into the purse to read the label to me. “It contains triclosan… For some reason it’s really  hard to get nowadays.” Her face suggested that puzzled her. “I mean it kills bacteria doesn’t it? And they’re the troublemakers…”

I suppressed a sigh and sat back in my chair. “It also encourages bacterial resistance, Jean. And it doesn’t seem to be any more effective at cleaning than good old soap and water.”

She blinked, but whether in surprise, or disbelief I couldn’t tell. “But…” She gathered her thoughts before continuing. “We pick up bacteria from our environment and dirty hands are how we transmit a lot of diseases. We have to keep them clean… Bacteria” –she said it as if the word itself were dirty- “Bacteria are everywhere.” She pointed to an alcohol-based hand sanitizer I kept on my desk. “And I see you don’t take any chances either. ”She relaxed in her chair as if she’d proved her point.

I allowed myself the sigh I had avoided earlier. “An interesting dichotomy, isn’t it?” She raised an eyebrow. “That we live in a world jam-packed with so many bacteria that they are virtually ubiquitous…” I continued, “…and yet so few cause us trouble.”

“But…” She leaned forward on her seat.

“But we seem to want to malign them all; we act as if they were all our enemies. And yet, our own microbiome –the bacteria living in our intestines- are absolutely essential for our health in ways we are just discovering. And apparently the number of bacteria normally living in and on a healthy human body outnumber our own cells by ten to one.” I stopped and smiled at her incredulous expression. “We –our cells- are only the tip of the iceberg.”

I suppose I thought I’d just be reminding her of something she already knew, but her eyes were saucers. “Zealandia,” she said after a moment’s reflection.

“Pardon me?” I’d never heard the word, and wondered whether she was referring to the title of some obscure novel she was teaching at school.

“Zealandia,” she repeated as if she were surprised I didn’t recognize the term. “You know, doctor, the continental landmass of which New Zealand is a part? It’s 95% underwater so you can’t see it and therefore don’t appreciate it’s importance. We usually only judge what we can see, don’t we…?” she added with a wink and a big winning smile.

We all have our blind spots.

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.

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?”

Trust

Like time, trust is a difficult concept –easy enough to conceptualize, perhaps, but hard to define. To categorize. To understand. It is slippery, and slides through the fingers like water. As St. Thomas Aquinas said of time, you know what it is until someone asks you to be more specific. It is something, however, that seems to be essential  in many of our interactions –arguably none more so than in Medicine.

As a doctor, I could be accused of a confirmation bias I suppose –after all there are other relationships that require a high degree of whatever we understand to be involved in the concept of trust that might seem too numerous to list. That is true enough; trust pervades all levels of our daily lives, but I suspect we are likely more fastidious in entrusting our very existence –or the quality thereof- to an unknown person, especially since the interaction involves an unequal power relationship.

But it is a necessary trap, isn’t it? Sickness can be incapacitating and so we usually seek to alleviate it if possible, or mitigate the effects if not. Patients –the etymology of the word derives from the present participle of the Latin word suggesting ‘undergo’, or ‘suffer’- understandably seek what power they can exercise beforehand. If they have to place themselves in the hands of someone else, often a stranger, they can avail themselves of  information about the doctor beforehand. There are rating systems online that canvas opinions of interactions and results from the doctor in question to help with the decision. They may pre-engender that elusive trust -or at least, facilitate it in what are often constrained and inadequate time limits of a consultation visit.

My reputation –or lack of it- is therefore already packaged for a patient to open or discard as she sees fit. I am a sort of book already read and critiqued by someone else, dependent on the rating, even though I am –as is everybody else- a work in progress. The last chapters are yet to be written. But I have no such prescient knowledge about my patients –no way of knowing them beforehand. I must take what I get and write the next page…

And yet, that is not always the case: some, you get to know and enjoy; Sonia was one of those. I had seen her on and off for years, albeit at intervals that verged on epochs –often so long, in fact, that I sometimes assumed she was dividing her loyalty amongst several doctors. Sonia, I had realized long ago, saw medical opinions as bouquets from which she felt quite comfortable in selecting the most appealing flower.

She is a short, large woman, with a smile that says relax. Her hair has greyed over the years, but is invariably bunched on the top of her head and artfully fastened with a brightly coloured ribbon no doubt contrived to contrast with her clothes. It is probably a fashion statement; I see it as an idiosyncrasy, but I’m sure that my Rate-Your-Doctor file does not comment favorably on my own tastes in that area. My receptionists certainly don’t.

I have always liked Sonia. She seems to have that rare talent of being able to summarize her concerns succinctly and intelligently –almost as if she had written them down beforehand, memorized the salient features, and then practiced them over and over again until she was satisfied they made sense. Satisfied I would understand how important they were to her. Almost as if she had reused them many times…

But today, her referral letter suggested nothing new: fibroids -benign growths of the muscles of the uterus- with a past history of occasionally heavy periods. I had seen her for this a few years before and she had decided not to do anything about it, confident, as she had said, that the problems would go away with her menopause. I saw her watching me as I scrolled through the letter and the accompanying ultrasound on the computer screen.

I looked up at her from the monitor. She was dressed in a beautiful green, velvety dress like she was about to head for a cocktail party after the consultation. And, true to form, had fastened her long, unruly hair on her head with a neon bright, thick orange ribbon –like a trail marker tied to a bush in a forest… I buried the thought as soon as I noticed her smiling at my glance. “So..?”

“So, I’ve decided I want you to check my fibroids again,” she said as if I’d just canvassed her opinion the week before and was still trying to make up her mind about what to do. “Just my fibroids, that’s all.”

It was so like Sonia to want to help me to focus on the reason for her visit. I pulled up a comparison ultrasound done at her last visit three and a half years ago. She was 52 then and I had encouraged her decision at that time. Fortunately the fibroid –there was only one then and now- had not grown in the interval. But the lining cells of the uterus –the ones that are shed during a period- were now quite remarkably thickened. That had changed! I scanned the blood tests her family doctor had done a few weeks ago and they seemed to indicate that she had probably already gone through her menopause. So any bleeding now would be both unusual as well as worrisome –uterine cancer can present like that. I looked at what she’d told me on her last visit: heavy, but only sporadic bleeding. She’d refused to allow me to sample the cells in the uterus –an often painful but necessary procedure we commonly perform in the office but which could be done in the operating room under an anaesthetic if necessary. She’d promised to decide and come back on another day… But hadn’t.

“What about the bleeding, you had?” I said, mindful of her concerns about the biopsy I had suggested last time.

“You want to do a biopsy, don’t you?” she said with an almost flirtatious smile.

“Well, I’d like to make sure there are no abnormal cells in the uterus. The fibroid hasn’t grown, since we last met, but we never did that biopsy I’d suggested.”

She turned on another sweet smile and shrugged. “I’m sorry about that, but business took me out of town right after I saw you. Anyway, I had one done down in the United States and it was normal.”

I looked through the data her doctor had included with the referral, but I couldn’t find any pathology report or mention of the biopsy. “I can’t find any record of it here,” I said, busily scanning the screen to see if I’d missed anything.

“You won’t find it in there, I don’t think,” she said with a little toss of her head. I looked up. “The doctor down there just phoned me and said everything was okay, but never asked me where to send the results.”

That seemed a little unusual –if only for medicolegal purposes, doctors like to make sure results of tests are sent to the patient’s personal physician. “When was that?” I said, ready to enter it into her notes.

Another shrug. “I don’t know. Three years ago maybe?”

“Are you still bleeding, Sonia?” A simple question, I thought. But her face suddenly hardened. “Because a lot can change in three years…”

Her eyes tightened slightly and she looked at me suspiciously. “No, wait. I’m sure it was more recent…” She closed her eyes for a moment, obviously trying to decide what might be a better answer. She was now angry and her whole body stiffened.

I thought perhaps I could diffuse the situation. “Well, do you think you could ask that American doctor to send me the report of his or her biopsy at least?”

“You don’t trust me, do you doctor?”  She stood up and started to put on her coat. “And after all these years!”

“Sonia, let me just have a look at that report and see what it says…”

“I told you what it said,” she said through tense lips.

“And anyway, if you’re worried about another biopsy, if we have to do one, why don’t we do it in the hospital under a general anaesthetic..?”

Suddenly, her coat was on and she hurried to the door stopping only briefly to face me. Her face was an angry mask as it stared at me with a mixture of indignation and disbelief. “I’ve trusted you all these years to do what was best for me,” it said with a slow, almost sad shake of the head underneath. “But without trust…” She sighed loudly and walked stiffly but determinedly through the door without a backward glance.

Maybe she was right about the trust we shared, but I am still waiting for that report.

Medicine and Ideology

Some things are more definitive than others –less ambiguous, more predictable. Reliable, in other words. They lend themselves to yes-no answers, right-wrong judgements, good-bad characteristics. And some people prefer to see the world in black and white like this. Uncertainty is uncomfortable for them; they crave cognitive closure in the opinion of Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland.

It would seem that there are times in a life –usually inter regna, times of transition- when this eschewal of indeterminacy is more powerful: adolescence, retirement, divorce, and so on. And at those times, when everything seems unstable and unfamiliar, shelter from the maelstrom under any unmoving roof seems prudent. Rules and unequivocal, unchanging answers are tempting accessories. That something is either right or wrong can be comforting in times of stress.

One problem with this bichromatic need however, is that things are rarely static. They are continually modified by circumstance and context; the questions that need to be asked, and especially their answers, expand and mutate. They evolve over time, in other words. So, for example, that someone is, or is not pregnant, may be unambiguous and beyond dispute. But whether that pregnancy continues or miscarries, is healthy or complicated is not. Things change, are unpredictable, and answers –facts?- obtained at one stage may not obtain later. Life is flux -an ever moving current.

And, of course, context is almost as relevant as substance. Nothing is separate from its surroundings. A pregnant woman, say, is a member of a group –however tenuous- or at the very least, a member of a society. A culture. There are obligations and expectations unique to her milieu that may not be immediately apparent –especially to someone not a member of that group. And these conditions do not often lend themselves to a one-time appraisal, a permanent and unbending judgement, or a right/wrong approach. A rigid doctrine -established on whatever principles- does not always work. In fact it imprisons; it imposes an unchanging view on a constantly unfolding reality. It is dogma.

So it was with some concern that I read an article in the Sept.16/14 Canadian Medical Association Journal –in the news section- entitled ‘US politics and ideology enter exam rooms’. In it was outlined some of the requirements in certain states that seem to impose political or moral ideologies on both patients seeking assistance, and medical staff trying to provide it –an arena that one would expect to be free of bias and coercion.

There are some American states, apparently, that require a woman seeking a pregnancy termination to be shown –not just offered-  a view of the ultrasound of her fetus. In my opinion, this is just cruel –a punishment thinly disguised as help. Disclosure. An admonition clothed in the scarily garish colours of useful information. That there may have been extenuating circumstances –whether personal or social- that led to her decision to terminate would seem to be irrelevant. The choice the woman has to make is a painful one –it is seldom capricious, rarely if ever carelessly taken. That someone should be available to help her with her decision and counsel her before and after if she wishes is a given. But it should not be an impediment.

As the article observes, ‘In such cases, it’s not just the doctor and the patient in the room. In effect, it’s the state government, too.’  This is the not-so-thin edge of a wedge that seeks to modify behaviour –even behaviour condoned in law- by mandating seemingly reasonable adjuncts to the process. ‘What could be wrong with offering to show the woman her fetus on an ultrasound?’ one can almost hear them pontificate mellifluously with fists all the while clenched tightly behind their backs. But the operative word here is ‘offer’. The term suggests choice.  Not coercion. Bullying. Threat.

I recognize that I’ve chosen a contentious issue –pregnancy termination- to illustrate a much more fundamental point: the relational autonomy that should be a cornerstone in our dealings with others. And yet it forms –must form- an essential foundation if we are to reach out to those who, constrained by their own beliefs or cultures –their own experiences- are reluctant to seek our help. It seems to me that it is only humane to enable them -actively encourage them- to access whatever aid we are able to provide. It is not merely magnanimity on our part. Not generosity. Not accommodation. It is empathy; a recognition that despite our differences, we are all struggling. All seeking some path through the chaos of one transition or another. And the cognitive closure need not be punitive. Nor dogmatic.

In fact, it can be instructive. Insightful. As Shakespeare observed, It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves. And we must help others to see this. We must enable them, and so enable ourselves.

Is there ever a correct answer?

“Doctor, can I still get pregnant?” -a seemingly straightforward question, I suppose: quote her some statistics derived from her age, past history and current medical status. But in reality, it’s probably not a single question she’s asking. In many respects, it’s a philosophical question with many facets to consider; it requires a thoughtful reply.

Philosophy, as Michael Blake, a philosopher from the University of Washington once put it, is thinking in slow motion. I like that; it suggests that to answer something, to comprehend the various competing facets of a question, we need to take some time to consider both what is really being asked and whether our answer to it is relevant, sensitive, and in this context at any rate, representative of current thinking.

To make it through even a single day, we all have to make many unexamined assumptions about reality, not to mention about people and their beliefs, hopes and aspirations. Sometimes we assume they share our own opinions, see the world as we do, have the same or similar doubts, exhibit our own biases. But I suspect that this assumption will never properly address the question my patient posed. It may not even come close to answering it.

The question is a tree: it has roots and branches; and rather than existing in isolation, it is probably surrounded by other questions. To understand the tree, you have to understand the forest -or at least look at it in context.

“Can I still get pregnant?” -the very construction of the sentence suggests some of the worries and concerns that she has. It is, on first consideration, merely a question about her ability to conceive and if answered in that framework, is a number. A percentage. It is the product of an algorithm into which you feed her age, past history of pregnancies or diseases, and her current medical status and a type of answer appears. It is a type of answer, because it is really only a statistic -useful for a population of 40 year olds, say, but not necessarily this 40 year old. And what does 20% or even 50% really mean? The question, after all, was “Can I get pregnant?” -not, can a forty-year-old woman get pregnant. Not really; she is asking in effect: “Given what you know of me  and my circumstances, my health, my body, do you think I can still get pregnant?”  And she is asking for your opinion, not a legally binding statement. She is asking what you think…

And “still get pregnant” is important. In itself it hints at other questions: “At my age, is pregnancy even advisable?”; “What might be the problems I will encounter if I do become pregnant?” And “What would a pregnancy under those circumstances look like for me? And for the baby?”; “Are there disadvantages -long and short-term- that you can foresee, doctor?” Once again, you are being asked for an opinion -perhaps even a personal perspective (with all it’s biases and cultural nuances).

There is an uncertainty built into the very question that demands consideration. Perhaps she is unsure about whether even to consider pregnancy; perhaps it was something someone else had asked her -or even demanded she ask. Maybe she is asking for permission not to become pregnant…

What is inserted into an equation, determines it’s answer; the background of a question, the milieu -the forest in which it lives- should suggest the thrust of the response. There is often no correct solution; in fact that may not even be what is sought. Sometimes a question is more of a search for someone to listen, a hope for acknowledgement, a quest for agreement, than a need for an accurate reply. The skill is in recognizing what is being requested; listening not so much to what is being asked, as to what is meant by the question in the first place.

So the importance is in properly and sensitively analysing the question; recognizing that it is a series of probes for which a thoughtful response is required. It is usually not just a number that is wanted -although that may help to give some perspective to the subsequent analysis- it is a respectful appreciation of the concern and a realistic appraisal of the context. “Can I still become pregnant?” requires not only a judgment -even though that is certainly a part of it- but also an opinion: a thorough appraisal and a considered response; it is not necessarily even final: things evolve -questions as well.

It is thinking -and answering– in slow motion.

Antenatal Genetic Testing

When I bring up the subject of antenatal genetic testing, most of my patients don’t even bat an eye: it’s just what you do nowadays. Of course you want to know as much about your unborn and developing baby as possible! But there are some -just a few- who look at me suspiciously, searching for a reason I suggested it on their first visit. Do I suspect something is not quite right? Are they high risk? I can see the questions on their faces before they answer. The woman will look at her husband with a worried expression, and he will stare down at his shoes. The real question they are struggling with is: What will we do if the test comes out abnormal? Will we terminate the pregnancy -or perhaps even more troubling- will we have to?

No, I don’t think they fear some legal or medical attempt at coercion for termination. I suspect some of them had not even  considered the possibility of an abnormal fetus. Why would they? After all, does one consider the possibility of an accident every time one gets in a car? Or crosses the street..? It is, in other words, a surprise that anyone would confront them with the risks. It’s supposed to be a happy time, a new life, a new journey. I think that what many of them fear is the unspoken assumption that if there is an abnormality, they will want to terminate: an expectation, not a requirement.

Societal expectations are stronger than we realize. It’s often only when we dare to run contrary to them that we feel the strength of the current. Try shopping in a grocery store with a wheelbarrow rather than the supplied shopping cart, or maybe less fancifully, showing up at an expensive restaurant wearing a tee-shirt. You can do either of these things without getting arrested, but would you? Would you whistle at the symphony? Society’s pressures may be subtle, but they are compelling; we are supposed to know what to do and then do it.

There are other pressures to conform that are sometimes even more difficult to spot. A recent study in one of my medical journals looked at how information for patients with abnormal genetic screening (blood tests, ultrasounds, or amniocentesis) was presented. Discussions about Down Syndrome in literature handed out to patients undergoing genetic screening, for example, were purportedly neutral to allow for untainted management choice options. But the information stressed the problems the Down syndrome child would encounter and the problems the parents would confront rather than -and not balanced by, say, the joys any parent might expect raising such a child -any child. At first glance, this seems beyond reproach: the parents need to know what to expect. And yet, if you read a pamphlet on a car you were considering purchasing, and it merely talked of its problems, what’s the chance you’d turn it down and look elsewhere?

Objectively considered, antenatal testing for all of its advantages, could be seen as a type of Eugenics process. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally Pro Choice: the couple -the woman– should have the right of choice and no one else! And yet I’m struck by the attitude of many in the profession who seem to assume that antenatal screening is there to assure the parents of a good product. And if what it finds is something different -note the word different, as opposed to substandard, or even defective- well then… We are doctors and by definition we deal with health problems -illness, pain, suffering- and we see the world in those terms. It is hard to put that prejudice aside in counselling as much as we might wish. We, too, are affected by the societal currents. Just look at the difficulty we have -we all have- in dealing with expectations or even medical practice models in other cultures less like our own.

And it is difficult to transcend these, try as we might. We are the creations of our own society and its customs and expectations. We are what we have been accustomed to believe, and non-believers often seem odd, even alien. More often, however, we see them as simply being wrong and assume they need to be corrected. Or we convey in our words or expressions that it is their values that are at fault. And yet all choices are value-laden -even ours.

I don’t know that we can ever shed our cultural -our societal- heritage nor that we should even consider this necessary. But a heritage is a wealth of accumulated -and accumulating- customs, values and opinions. It is an ever-expanding, ever-changing treasure that defines who we are and what we think. It is never static, never ossified; and like a parent, should be open-armed, forgiving, and all-encompassing. It is how I would like to counsel those parents before they even receive their results -before they even decide whether or not to be tested.

In a way, it is me that is being tested.