The Trigger Warning

Call me naive, if you will, or maybe even uninformed, but not insensitive. Not indifferent; I am neither.  Unaware, perhaps comes closest. And, until recently, the concept of trigger warning was not one that I thought would have arisen in the day to day world of office gynaecology. But I was wrong.

A trigger warning, I have since discovered, is an alert to the audience (or patient) that what you are going to say might inadvertently offend or upset them –especially if they had experienced a related trauma. Theoretically, at least, it gives them an opportunity to prepare themselves beforehand, or inform you that they would rather not hear that part of your discussion. Many university lecturers have taken to issuing these warnings in their preparatory notes, or at least at the beginning of their lectures, I understand.

And at first glance, it seems the reasonable thing to do. If something in the lecture might offend or distress some students, then they should have the opportunity to opt out of that particular lecture without punitive consequences. On the other hand, to withhold some of the contents from the entire class in case it offends someone, seems like censorship. So I think that a prophylactic warning beforehand is in everybody’s best interest.

I suppose it could get out of hand, however.

Jennifer was a patient that I had seen for the first time in the hospital colposcopy clinic for  a rather long history of abnormal pap smears. I had looked at her cervix through a colposcope (a microscope with a long focal length so it can visualize the cervix even high up in the vagina) and biopsied an area that was likely responsible for the pap smear change; she had come to the office to discuss the findings.

A young woman in her late twenties, she seemed quite self assured as she sat quietly in the busy waiting room reading a magazine oblivious to the noise around her. Dressed in black designer jeans and a baggy yellow sweat shirt that said ‘Really?’ in bold blue letters, she looked capable of weathering any disturbance. But, as absorbed in the intricacies of the magazine article as she seemed, her eyes immediately locked on mine when I appeared in the room. Brown, curious eyes, as I recall; eyes that, once engaged, held their target until it turned away –or responded as I did, with a proffered hand.

When we were settled in my office, and she had inspected the room, a sudden and unexpected smile appeared on her face. It was, I suspect, an attempt to force me to give her good news about the biopsy. “So what did you find, doctor?” she said, with a lilt in her voice.

It’s often difficult to discuss an abnormality with someone who seems sure that nothing is wrong. Obviously her GP had chosen not to. “Well, you remember that the pap smear that brought you to the colposcopy clinic in the first place was abnormal…”

“Yes,” she interrupted, “but it was only mildly abnormal…”

I smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring fashion and nodded. “Pap smears are an early part of a screening system that helps us to decide whether or not to investigate further. They’re just cells that we collect by scraping the surface of the cervix after all.”

Her expression immediately changed and her previously cheerful face tightened. “What are you trying to tell me, doctor?” she said, and straightened in her chair. She stared at me for a moment, but before I could formulate an answer, words tumbled from her mouth. “Do I have cancer? Is that why you brought me in today instead of letting my GP tell me?”

I kept my eyes calm, and shook my head. “No, far from it.” Once someone has used the C word, I often find it’s important to disavow them of it immediately or it festers in the background. “You have a moderate abnormality on the biopsy I took.” I avoided using the Bethesda system’s alternate label of ‘high grade’ to help her to process the news. “It’s definitely not cancer, but if you left it for a while, it might certainly take that route…”

“Left it how long?” she asked, trying, unsuccessfully, to keep the panic out of her voice.

I shrugged, to show her that I wasn’t particularly worried. “Years, likely… but we usually treat it soon after we diagnose it… Just in case.” I added thoughtfully.

Her eyes were dinner plates and her mouth was trembling; I thought she might burst into tears, so I handed her a tissue.

“And… How do you treat it?” She managed to look out the window behind my back for a moment. “Surgery?”

I nodded reassuringly. I was about to describe a small five or ten-minute operation we do in the outpatient’s department under local anaesthetic when she exploded in tears.

“I will not let you take my uterus out, doctor!” she said between sobs. “We’re trying to get pregnant!”

“I won’t let me take your uterus out either, Jennifer,” I said, trying to lighten her mood, I guess. But it backfired.

“You seem to be taking this whole thing rather lightly, doctor. I would have hoped you would be more sensitive…”

My face fell. “I’m sorry, Jennifer. I was just trying to reassure you that removing your uterus was not the kind of surgery I had in mind. It was a rather clumsy attempt, though. I’m sorry…”

Her forehead softened and she grabbed another tissue and relaxed a little on her chair. “Remember, we want to get pregnant soon,” she said, her words tentative now. “We’ve already lost one… I had a miscarriage last year,” she added hastily for fear I might not understand. She stared at me for a moment. “Could I wait till after I’ve had a baby and then do the surgery?

I looked at the findings from the colposcopy once again. She had a rather large lesion and the pathology report suggested that some areas of the biopsy might be more severe -not cancer, but certainly meriting treatment. “You always have a choice, Jennifer…”

“But…”

I realized she probably felt there might be different opinions for management so I sat back in my chair to show her I was willing to listen, but she just continued to stare at me with a mixture of anger and disbelief on her face. “Would you like me to ask your GP to send you to another gynaecologist for a second opinion?”

She didn’t say anything, so I decided to describe the operation I usually perform for her abnormality: a LEEP (Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure). It involves taking the abnormal cells off the cervix by removing a thin disk of tissue. I drew on a diagram of the cervix and uterus as I was describing it so she could understand it a little better. I even gave her the diagram to take home with her.

As I was finishing, she looked up from the paper and locked eyes with me again. “And the complications?  Am I going to be able to have children?”

I smiled at her again. I had been about to discuss possible complications with her. “Well, hopefully it won’t interfere with that, but if you look it up online, you’ll see a few complications listed. In my experience they’re not very common, though.”

My attempt to put the complications into some kind of perspective for her obviously didn’t reassure Jennifer. “What are they?” She said, rather harshly I thought.

“Well, in pregnancy, the cervix has to remain strong enough to hold the baby inside until it’s ready. If too much of it is taken away with the surgery, then it might open prematurely –incompetent cervix it’s called- and the pregnancy might be lost…” Her mouth fell open and her eyes narrowed. “But,” I continued before she could say anything, “nowadays that first ultrasound you get in pregnancy can look at the cervix and pretty reliably reassure us that it’s not likely to happen.” I kept my face as neutral as I could in an attempt to disarm her growing distress. “And if it seemed likely that the cervix was shortening, or if we discovered a problem later in the pregnancy –the baby’s a lot bigger then, remember, and so it exerts more pressure on the cervix- we could put a stitch called a ‘cerclage’ around the cervix to keep it closed. Then, near the end of pregnancy when the baby is old enough to be born safely, we untie it…”

She could barely speak, she was so angry. She glared at me through predatory eyes and then, with clenched teeth and a barely open mouth, she managed to say something. “You know, I’m really disappointed in you doctor! With all your experience and with all I’ve heard about you, I’m really disappointed.”

I suppose my expression changed to one of puzzlement –astonishment, really- because she immediately began to put on the coat she’d kept on her lap.

“You knew I’d had a miscarriage –it’s on that form I filled out in the hospital for that clinic. And I told you here in the office just a minute ago. You could see I was worried, and yet you still kept talking as if it was simply business as usual…!” She grabbed another tissue and dabbed both eyes again. “I had a hard time recovering from the pregnancy I lost… But you didn’t care!”

“I’m sorry… I…” But she wasn’t listening.

“Any doctor who was sensitive to their patients –anybody for that matter- would have known to give a trigger warning…” she said and stood to leave. “I’m going to ask my GP to send me to someone more empathetic,” she said and turned on her heel and stomped angrily out of the office.

I felt terrible too; I felt I’d failed her -even though there’s no easy way to tell people things they don’t want to hear. Thinking back on it, I suppose I was insensitive to her needs. And yet…

It’s hard to be anything but humble in this field…

 

 

An Obstetrical Edition

Miscarriages –early pregnancy losses- have long been the subjects of research. They are unfortunately all too common, and until very recently, we were only aware of those that occurred after a noticeable menstrual delay –the tip of the iceberg, in other words.

Some progress has been made in understanding why they occur, of course –random genetic mistakes either from development, or from abnormalities in the sperm or egg DNA that happened to be involved, for example. But this type of knowledge is often after the fact -insufficient to predict or prevent the problem, although with in vitro fertilization (IVF) there are often techniques available to detect genetic flaws and guide the choice of fertilized egg to be implanted. This does little to address the issue in the much larger population attempting pregnancy in the more traditional, unaided fashion, however.

I was therefore intrigued by an article in the BBC news: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35301238 that outlined a proposal to genetically modify some human embryos (not for implantation, be aware) to ‘…understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby.’

I realize that, at first glance at any rate, this proposal seems to cross a boundary that has been hitherto sacrosanct: experimenting with human embryos. It seems to trespass on at least two traditional shibboleths. The first one –the more problematic and dogmatically based one- is that from the moment of conception, the embryo –or morula, once the fertilized egg has divided into 16 cells- is a person, or at least entitled to all the respect and privileges of a human being. This is more of a belief, a religious or moral tenet, than a demonstrable attribute of the embryo at this stage, though, and a more neutral consideration of its personhood would have to rely on either arguments from potential or its ability to survive outside of the uterus, should that be required.

The other, and maybe less religiously coloured objection, is the issue of unintended (or even intended) consequences: that to interfere with human DNA is to interfere with humanity itself and perhaps even the reason we are as we find ourselves –evolutionary adaptations that are the solutions to myriad problems of which we may be only dimly aware, if at all; and that we don’t really understand what we’re doing –or how to do it safely –i.e. without inadvertently affecting other things, even if we did. Like any ecosystem, everything is interdependent in one way or another: solve one problem and perhaps create another that you might not have even suspected was being modulated by the initial problem.

This, of course, is the thrust of the UK proposal. One can reasonably study animal models –mice, for example- only if they have comparable genes for early embryologic development. And as Dr Niakan, from the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Many of the genes which become active in the week after fertilisation are unique to humans, so they cannot be studied in animal experiments.” Initially, the study could have more benefits in IVF work – ‘Of 100 fertilised eggs, fewer than 50 reach the blastocyst stage, 25 implant into the womb and only 13 develop beyond three months…’ “We believe that this research could really lead to improvements in infertility treatment and ultimately provide us with a deeper understanding of the earliest stages of human life.”

Convinced? It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? Clearly, we need to understand how things work (as the study proposes) long before we attempt to modify them in any way. And if gene editing on a human embryo can be done, it is inevitable that it will be done by someone, somewhere, but perhaps with less stringent rules and guidelines to constrain it. So, should we just bite our collective tongues, and bow to progress? And is there really a choice?

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of genome editing; I don’t think there is a one-size -fits-all solution, but I do think there is un bel compromis. The issue must be kept open for discussion, made public, in other words, so that at the very least it is not perceived as being done in secrecy and without identifiable or appropriate input. The pros and cons must be aired and in terms that all can understand. And the opinions of all of the various interest groups -both religious and secular- should be publicly and repetitively solicited. The left hand must know what the right hand is doing.

No, there is unlikely to be consensus; people will divide along predictable lines as I have suggested, but at least there will be a chance for an airing of the arguments, and an assessment of their merits or deficiencies that is available to all who care –a public catharsis. A mitigation…

But in the end, I think we must always be mindful of the dangers that Shakespeare intimated in his Much Ado About Nothing: ‘O, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!’