A Flicker of Hope

It’s interesting what catches our attention when we surf the apps on our smartphones nowadays. Some of the more provocative articles have dubious sources, of course, but with a little digging the original study can often be found and the claims checked. The problem, however, is that even these results need to be reproducible in case either the methodology or the results were unreliable –and also the conclusions drawn from them. That’s why it’s often unwise to believe everything you see reported –or, on the other side, to report everything you want to believe… Fear and Hope are wonderful incentives, and so the issues in the study need to be thoroughly researched and vetted for bias and innuendo and references to the original study need to be included.

Perhaps because I am now retired, any article about time-related changes catches my eye more easily. So I find myself particularly interested in studies that suggest progress is being made -not with respect to age itself, but more the evolving process of aging: the gerund. It was with considerable interest that I read the BBC news on the use of flashing light therapy for Alzheimer’s http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38220670

I also attempted to read the original paper from MIT (entitled Gamma frequency entrainment attenuates amyloid load and modifies microglia) published in the December 2016  issue, of the journal Nature should you wish to struggle though it, but I have to confess that for me, even the title was difficult…

At any rate, the article suggested that flashing light in the eyes of mice that were genetically engineered to have Alzheimer’s-type damage in their brain, ‘encouraged protective cells to gobble up the harmful proteins that accumulate in the brain in this type of dementia. The perfect rate of flashes was 40 per second – a barely perceptible flicker, four times as fast as a disco strobe.’ And ‘Build-up of beta amyloid protein is one of the earliest changes seen in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease. It clumps together to form sticky plaques and is thought to cause nerve cell death and memory loss.’ Research has focused on ways to prevent this plaque formation using drugs, but with limited success so far. If a non-invasive method like a flickering light can activate the immune system to do it by itself, so much the better. ‘The researchers say the light works by recruiting the help of resident immune cells called microglia. Microglia are scavengers. They eat and clear harmful or threatening pathogens -in this instance, beta amyloid. It is hoped that clearing beta amyloid and stopping more plaques from forming could halt Alzheimer’s and its symptoms.’ Fine with me.

I did, however, initially wonder about how bothersome the flickering would be –news reports on television usually caution their audience whenever even flash photography is found in the report, presumably because of the risk of triggering epileptic seizures. But, as the article discussed: ‘For the patient, it should be entirely painless and non-invasive “We can use a very low intensity, very ambient soft light. You can hardly see the flicker itself. The set-up is not offensive at all,” they said, stressing it should be safe and would not trigger epilepsy in people who were susceptible.’ Better and better! It’s just preliminary stuff, of course, but at least it opens up new pathways and ideas for further research.

As if even reading about the concept was in itself therapeutic, the article immediately triggered what, at first blush, would seem to be a non-sequitur memory of a patient I saw many years ago. The issue as I recall was not so much about mental aberration -although the patient herself was apparently suffering from paranoid schizophrenia- but more about her speculation on the possible effects of flickering light on mental function.

I was, I think, in my first year of residency training in the gynaecology program and was doing a rotation in one of the older teaching hospitals in the city. In those days, things were very busy on the wards and so our tasks were apportioned according to our seniority, the senior residents doing the lion’s share of new consultations, while we juniors were given those jobs that, while important, required less experience -pap smears, usually.

My senior’s name was Sara, I remember, and she decided I should be the one to go to the psychiatric ward to do a pap smear on one of their more ‘unusual patients’ as she said to tease me.

“What do you mean ‘unusual’?” I asked. Sara didn’t like to go onto that ward, for some reason, so she usually made some excuse.

She stared at me for a moment before answering, I remember. “Oh, you know, she has paranoid delusions and hallucinates, or something…” But it was clear that Sara really had no idea why our department had been asked to do the pap, nor had she any intention of doing it herself.

I was beginning to suspect this was merely another sluff. Sara fancied herself a consultant now and able to delegate things she didn’t want to do. “But if she’s paranoid and hallucinates, wouldn’t it be better if the doctor doing the pap smear was female?”

Her expression turned angry at that point, and I recall her almost attacking me with her eyes. “Oh for god’s sake, there’ll be a nurse there with you the whole time… Or maybe they said two…” she added, uncertainty softening her glare, but not her resolve to send me to that ward.

I showed up at the psychiatric area and was allowed in only after identifying myself via the phone just outside the door. Then I was led to the brightly lit nursing station, and a rather large matronly nurse handed me the chart of the woman needing the pap.

“She hasn’t had a pap smear in years,” the nurse said in a soft voice, so it couldn’t be heard in the corridor outside of the station. “And her voices told her she has cervix cancer…”

“Her voices?” I should have been more professional, but I was already feeling a bit apprehensive about being inside a locked ward. “I mean, shouldn’t we wait until she’s feeling a bit better before we…”

“We can’t seem to find any good medication for her yet,” the nurse interrupted. “The doctor thought that we could at least calm her by checking her cervix.”

Greta –I still remember her name- was already in the examination room, sitting in her gown on a little table that had a set of rickety old metal stirrups at one end. They’d apparently had to borrow everything from another ward for the job. As soon as I entered with the nurse, Greta examined me from top to bottom with suspicious eyes.

“You’re a man,” she said before we were even introduced.

The nurse, whose name I forget, walked over to Greta and held her hand. “You remember we talked about this, Greta,” she said in the same soft voice she’d used before. “And you said it was okay…”

Greta nodded, smiled and lay back to put her feet in the stirrups. “They said I should show you my cervix,” she said, the italics staring at me between her knees. “Not the one with cancer, though…  I’m supposed to keep that one hidden.”

“Her voices,” the nurse quickly whispered in my ear as I sat on a little stool they’d also borrowed for the occasion along with a light on a long, flexible metal pole. It looked as old as the stirrups.

I got the speculum and the pap smear paraphernalia ready as the nurse readied the light. The bulb kept flickering, though. I fiddled with the bulb to see if it was loose, but it seemed tight enough. And it was obviously plugged into the wall. On, off, on, off… the light was beginning to annoy me. I snapped the switch a few times, but still, it insisted on flickering. On, off, on, off…

“I’ve got a flashlight,” the nurse said, but when she turned it on, it was so weak, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see cervix high up in the vagina with it.

“Well, maybe I can do the pap smear with the flickering light,” I said and shrugged.

Suddenly Greta raised her head and stared at me again. “Sometimes the prongs don’t make good contact in the wall. Everything’s so old in this place,” she added, shaking her head. “Take the plug out and squeeze the prongs.”

By this time I had the speculum in my hand, so I nodded to the nurse to try Greta’s suggestion. Sure enough, squeezing the prongs stopped the flickering.

Greta was still staring at me through her legs. “I may be crazy, doctor, but I’m not stupid…”

I put the speculum down on the medical tray I had on my lap. I sensed Greta wanted to explain something. “It’s a signal, you know.” I didn’t think I should reply. “The light’s always trying to tell you something –sometimes it’s angry, but more often it’s just trying to help…” Her feet still in the stirrups, she raised herself onto one elbow and continued. “It gets right into the brain to help, you know. It doesn’t stay there long enough, though, and that’s why it has to keep going in and out, in and out… And each time it tries, it flickers…” Then she stopped talking for a moment and stared at the nurse with an amazed expression on her face. “That’s what the doctors should be trying –not all those horrible pills…”

Maybe that incident stands out because it was the first pap smear I’d ever done. I don’t remember the result in Greta’s case –I was near the end of my rotation in that hospital- but I do remember Sara asking me what I’d done with that patient.

“Why?” I asked, afraid Greta had accused me of doing something improper.

“The ward told me that your patient seemed much calmer after you left and she apparently kept telling everybody you’d come up with a new treatment, or something…” And then I remember Sara smiling condescendingly at me, as if to say that junior residents could never do anything of the sort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Unfallen Yellow Leaf

Age, with his stealing steps, hath clawed me in his clutch,’ as the gravedigger in Hamlet says. I’m not so sure I agree –he was speaking about a skull, after all- but I have to admit there are times when I do feel old, and shipped ‘into the land as if I had never been such’; when I do wonder if whatever I have done has gone as unappreciated as a shadow from the moon, as unnoticed as an owl in the night.

I used to think that ‘Aged’ was just a word –but an adjective, not a noun; a descriptor rather than a described -somebody else, in other words… And that makes a difference, even when it is not mentioned in your CV but, rather, implied in the later stages of your career. I prefer to see the years as a kind of parliament where habits, and opinions and experience, all cohabit equitably, calmly debating the memories they were each elected to serve, sifting through them, perhaps, to decide if any merit publication.

And I’m sure there are some memories out there where my face is almost discernible in the background; where at least my voice was recognizable at the time. ‘What you lose as you age is witnesses, the ones that watched from early on and cared, like your own little grandstand’, John Updike wrote in one of his ‘Rabbit’ novels. He’s right, of course –and yet… Sometimes it can happen that you forget the very ones that watched from early on; you forget they cared.

Janice sat giggling in the corner of the waiting room, watching a little child toddle across the room towards her, his legs bowed around bulging diapers, his progress uncertain but determined. I could see her eyes from the reception desk; they glowed with excitement and her head seemed to bob in time to every tottering step. Her entire face became a smile, an expectation living vicariously as the little boy approached, followed closely by his beaming mother.

The consultation request from her GP said she had been referred for antenatal care -as if the rapture in her eyes, and the glow on her cheeks could be mistaken for anything else. Some people wear their pregnancies like jewels. It’s why I love obstetrics.

As I walked across the floor to greet her, she suddenly jumped up and extended her hand. For some reason I had the impression that she wanted to hug me, and would have under different circumstances. Not that I don’t enjoy being hugged, but it did seem unusual from someone I’d never met before. Pregnancy can be an unpredictable gem, though, and I have learned to appreciate its various rewards over the years.

“I’m so happy to finally meet you, doctor!” she bubbled as we headed down the little corridor to my office. “Pregnancy opens so many doors,” she added, smiling at nothing in particular with her eyes.

Indeed, she spoke as much with her eyes as with her mouth as she glanced around the room like a tourist in Paris. They pointed like children in front of each picture hanging on the walls, flitting from pictures to plants and back to pictures again -excited hummingbirds. They finally came to rest on a little terracotta begging lady I’d placed on an oak table in the corner. Pennies dripped from her little bowl, mute testaments to her longevity in the office.

“Where on earth did you get the pennies?” Janice whispered, this time rolling her eyes.

I had to shrug; it was a long story.

“I Googled you before I came, of course, and all your patients seem to mention the begging bowl… Now I see why,” she added shaking her head with what I took to be admiring disbelief.

“And there’s the carving of the woman holding the child and hiding behind the leaves!” she said, excitedly pointing to the little, pot-bound Areca plant on my desk. I was beginning to feel a bit like an employee at a Disney resort.

But then she calmed a little and instructed her eyes to leave the office thermals they soared and perch on my face. I could actually feel them, heavy on my skin, their prey firmly captured. It was almost as if I should understand that they had come back to roost; that mine was the aerie they had once called home. And throughout that first visit, I thought I felt her disappointment –a father finally seen after many years away, that no longer recognizes his child. I could sense a hope for reminiscence, a need for demonstrating familiarity, sharing secrets I couldn’t possibly possess.

Indeed, I got to know her quite well in that pregnancy, and the initial expectation of acknowledgment she had worn, soon blended imperceptibly into an easy friendship. Who once were strangers, now were allies in the weeks, then days, before delivery. But there was always something in the background that I sensed she was disappointed I hadn’t recognized. Something she was now holding as a surprise; something I should have known from the start.

And then, a week before her dates predicted she should deliver, I saw her sitting in the waiting room with an older woman. She’d told me her mother was flying in for the delivery and seemed excited that I was finally going to meet her. I could even feel the italics in the word.

I saw the two of them whispering excitedly in the corner seats Janice always chose, glancing secretly at me as I greeted other patients with earlier appointments. I thought I heard them snickering once or twice, but sometimes people do that when they’re nervous.

They both stood up and glanced mischievously at each other when I approached them. Her mother was a short matronly woman with greying hair that was precariously balanced on top of her head like a silver hay-stack. Her face, though wrinkled, held a pair of familiar eyes that strained at their cage doors just waiting for liberation.

It’s an interesting thing about faces: no matter how much they change, they stay the same… Or is it just the eyes –roses by any other name…?

The waiting room by then was empty, and there was nothing to stop Denise from hugging me, followed, as if on cue, by her daughter.

“So now do you recognize my daughter?” she said, her face an imp, her eyes laughing silently as they flew towards me.

“She’s changed a bit…” I stammered, still flustered by the secret, and admittedly a little embarrassed at being old enough to deliver a patient I had already delivered so many years before…

 

 

 

Forget it?

Memories are tricky things. Sometimes they’re not around when you want them, only to arrive later, when you don’t; sometimes they surround you, pester you, like wasps at a picnic. And other times you can’t find them at all no matter where you look. But the really tricky ones are those that never happened and yet they stand up and wave at you from the crowd as if they’ve known you for years. Sometimes they convince you…

The idea of false memories –or let’s be kind… mistaken memories- is not a new one, but several well-publicized instances recently have brought it to public attention. In the age of social media, of course, the cases are instant hits. Take the hyper-publicized example of Brian Williams, the popular NBC news anchor who claimed he remembered being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq 12 years ago. When this was disputed by veterans at the scene, he was forced to step down from his job. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-31220600

Because most of feel we can rely on our own memories, the feeling was that he had obviously lied –perhaps to enhance his own role and bravery in the combat, or because of the notorious ‘fog of war’ –that state of confusion that arises in states of extreme stress and chaos on a battlefield.

So which was it? Fog, or lie? Or maybe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Well, the matter is more complicated than it might seem on the surface. There has been a lot of work done on ‘false memories’ of late –how and why they form. For example: https://blogs.brown.edu/recoveredmemory/files/2015/05/Loftus_Pickrell_PA_95.pdf  Memories, as one of the psychologists explained, are not like videos recorded on a DVD –the same pictures, the same information each time you play them. They are more like the material on Wikipedia –able to be modified or even changed completely depending on the need or as a result of any new information that might come along. They are, in a word, mutable. Unreliable.

And yet, unconfronted, the memories seem infallible and in most of our experience it seems counterintuitive that they would be otherwise. After all, why have memories if we can’t rely on them? I suppose the simplest explanation is that if we remembered everything that happened throughout the average day –let alone a lifetime- there would be insufficient storage to say the least. Our brains must pick and choose relevance, perhaps adding or subtracting things for efficiency or continuity as information and situations change… It used to be termed ‘retrospective falsification of memory’. Or, as the authors of the above mentioned paper describe it: ‘Relatively modern research on interference theory has focussed primarily on retroactive interference effects. After receipt of new information that is misleading in some ways, people make errors when they report what they saw. The new post-event information often becomes incorporated into the recollection, supplementing or altering it, sometimes in dramatic ways. New information invades us, like a Trojan horse, precisely because we do not detect its influence.’

This type of situation is certainly not unknown in the medicolegal kingdom. In the course of frightening and unexpected events, there is sometimes a variation of perception –especially if the event is associated with injury or seems to be the result of negligence or incompetance. Totally understandable, obviously, and yet there are often variations of what actually occurred that are remembered.

But the issues are not always of putative malfeasance. Sometimes they have a more personal tone.

I hadn’t seen Joanna for several years, the computer said. I have to admit that nothing about her was familiar. I had no record of seeing her for the pregnancy, but apparently I’d delivered her baby so I must have been on call for consultations that day for my colleagues. She’d not come back for a post partum check, so I assumed she had simply gone back to her regular doctor or midwife. And now, six or seven years later, she was sitting in the waiting room staring at the wall. She didn’t look at all happy to be there. The referral letter said she just wished to talk about a problem. Referral letters are not always helpful…

I smiled at her as I crossed the carpet to where she was sitting and extended my hand. The one that reached out to me was sweating, limp, and tentative –as if, given a choice and not witnessed by the others in the room, it would have stayed rooted in her pocket. Joanna was a small woman with short, tightly curled black hair, held in place by a yellow ribbon so tightly wound around her forehead that the skin in the immediate vicinity seemed blotched and ill. I wondered for a moment if that was why she didn’t return my smile –she couldn’t. It only let her frown.

In the office, she sat in the uncomfortable captain’s chair across from me like a post with knots for eyes. They didn’t move, but instead seemed fixated on something half way across the desk. I tried to put her at ease by asking her how she was but was met with a wooden silence; not so much as a splinter moved. I let the silence lie fallow for what seemed an eternity and then, feeling her anger, asked her as gently as I could, why she’d come back to see me after all these years.

The knots on her face moved upwards a few degrees, and the post shivered. “This is not easy for me, doctor. I didn’t want to come, but my family doctor said I should talk about it with you…”

I leaned my forearms on the desk to show I was listening, and asked her what she wanted to talk about.

She sighed and shifted uneasily in her chair. Suddenly the knots became eyes and they stared at me like the barrels of two guns. Her face tightened and her jaw clenched for a moment. “The delivery!”

I waited, but she remained silent. I wasn’t sure what she wanted me to say. I couldn’t remember it at all, although my secretary had been able to get the delivery note I’d dictated. I skimmed through it quickly, but apart from a ten pound baby and a vaginal tear as she apparently pushed it out before I could control it, I could find nothing else. “Was there something about the delivery you wanted to ask me?” I said when it was clear she was waiting for me to comment on it.

Her eyes grew larger and angrier. “The forceps! I told you I didn’t want forceps! My first baby was large and I didn’t need them for her…” She was almost shouting and little strands of saliva escaped with every word. “I told you..! And then because of the forceps, I got that tear in my vagina that took weeks to heal. We couldn’t have sex for almost 2 months!” Suddenly, tears appeared and ran down her cheeks. “I told you I didn’t want you to use forceps! I told you… But you wouldn’t listen. You kept telling me the baby’s heart was too low and she had to be delivered right away.”

I could see her clenching and unclenching her fists as she talked. “My secretary has managed to find the report I dictated on the delivery. I’m sorry I don’t remember more, but let me read it again…”

“I’ll bet you don’t remember it!” she said between clenched teeth. “The nurses told me about you before my midwife consulted you. Apparently you like forceps and are pretty good at it…” She shook her head sadly and looked at her lap for a moment. “But I told you I didn’t want forceps and yet you went ahead and used them on me!”

I pulled up the delivery report and read it carefully. I’d been exceptionally detailed in my dictation that night, so perhaps I had been concerned that the baby’s condition might have warranted it. I’d been called by her midwife in the middle of the night because she had been pushing for three and a half hours without much progress. The head was not coming down the vaginal canal and the baby’s heart rate was beginning to show signs of distress. I had examined her, explained the situation, and then told her the options: continue to push, although I didn’t recommend this because she hadn’t made any progress after all that time, and the baby’s heart rate was beginning to show decelerations indicative of distress; caesarian section; or trial of forceps (a concept meaning if the forceps weren’t successful after a reasonable try, that caesarian section would be the fall-back option.) She hadn’t wanted a Caesarian, so I’d asked the nurse to get the forceps ready –just in case. Then, when the nurse had entered the room with the forceps, Joanna had become angry and said she would not accept forceps for delivery.

There followed a sudden, profound, and prolonged fetal heart rate deceleration and something had to be done to help the baby right away. The situation demanded an immediate judgment call, and that meant the forceps. But just as I was reaching for them, she gave a mighty push and delivered the baby. Unfortunately I’d been unable to control the head on such unexpectedly short notice, so she’d sustained a vaginal tear. It hadn’t been terribly large, and I’d been able repair it without much difficulty. Baby seemed fine, and there were smiles all around.

As I was finishing reading the report, I could hear her voice repeating again and again “Why did you use the forceps, doctor. I told you not to use them…”

I forced a smile. “I didn’t, Joanna. The baby was in trouble and I needed to get her out quickly, but I didn’t get a chance to use them. You pushed her out as I was turning to get them ready.”

“But I heard them! I heard them clanking…”

Forceps are metal and as the two sides are assembled they often make a metallic clanking noise. (They superficially resemble salad tongs, although unlike tongs, they don’t actually squeeze the head in anything like the same way. They fit more like a helmet over the head and guide it down the vaginal canal like a dilating wedge in front.) I shrugged politely. “It was an emergency for the baby. She needed to be delivered right away, so I was probably getting them ready when you had that really strong push.” I chuckled at something and she stared at me. “Sometimes I think that just the threat of using them is as good as using them. Nothing motivates stronger pushing than clanking the forceps!”

First I saw her teeth and then a smile worked its way slowly into the space around them. “But I distinctly remember you putting them on… I think…” Her eyes wandered to the window behind me for a moment. “Can I see your report?”

I smiled as much in relief as at the dissolution of the tension in the room. “Of course.” I punched a couple of keys and the report chugged its way out of the printer. I handed it to her and sat back while she read it. Actually, she must have read it several times, each time shaking her head in steadily diminishing disbelief. Finally she folded it up and put it in her purse. “All this time…” Her eyes sought mine and I could see they had softened from birds of prey, to… the prey itself. “But I remembered it so differently…”

“Would you like me to see if I can get a hold of the nurses reports as well?”

A large, genuine grin spread across her head dividing her eyes from her chin as she shook her head a final time. “I’m so sorry, doctor… All this time…” Suddenly a thought occurred to her. “Tell me one thing, though.” She tore her eyes away mischievously and they flitted briefly about the room. “Were you wearing an earring that night?”

I must admit I blushed at the question and nodded my head. “It was a phase,” I added quietly.

She giggled and reached for my hand. “Well at least my memory didn’t screw everything up…”