When the wheel has come full circle…

What’s it like to live on the other side? As far as I can tell, I’m neither trans nor bi; I do not have any genderqueer feelings or aspirations, and for as many years as I’ve been in this body, I’ve been happy with my gender assignation. I’m merely curious about things I have not experienced –about things that I am not, I suppose. Is a rose by another name really the same -really a rose as we have come to experience it? Or would it be more appropriate to phrase it as the converse: does calling something else a rose, make it a rose? Even if it feels it is? It begs the question ‘what is a rose’, doesn’t it? And is the answer –even culturally contextualized- relative, temporal, or in fact, meaningless? Perhaps for someone invested in linguistic definitional stability, the idea of reassigning nouns is more confusing than helpful –notwithstanding the in-your-face examples of homophones and homographs… But I think it is worth exploring.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, argued that naming the Divine -and therefore essentially defining­ it- confined what that concept meant, limited it. I can see parallels with gender appreciation and denotation. But this is certainly problematic for many of my generation who seem to be invested in the immutability of anatomically assigned gender –or perhaps merely question the wisdom of reallocating something that already is, to something it does not appear to be…

Confusing? An interregnum usually is. When those things to which we have become accustomed are swept aside –or, more disturbingly, simply ignored as if their validity had always been in question- there is often a feeling that some moral law has been violated. An ethical boundary crossed. No matter that the boundaries were themselves arbitrary, templates from a different paradigm, to borrow from Kuhn –a different time. It’s not so much that they were wrong, as that they saw the world from a different perspective –much like we might view the customs of another country as being quaint, if not inimical. But, hopefully, when analyzed carefully, there are usually negotiable commonalities. Values which transcend differences, attitudes which, on reflection, are not that hard to accept. Not that different from those we had come to trust.

So, in time, the misgivings fade, and it becomes not only uncomfortable to deviate from the new norm, but to wonder how we had ever thought otherwise –the subtle memory readjustment that neuroscientists tell us occur with time and circumstance.

Many years ago when I first opened my specialist practice in gynaecology, attitudes were different from today. I was asked to consult on conditions that would now be referred to sub-specialists –doctors who have gained added expertise in specific fields. But in those distant times, we were left to deal with things we had never seen in our training as best we could.

It’s when I first met Jo. There were few computers then; my day sheet was typed and the name seemed to have been left purposely vague. But Jo sat straight and proud in the chair, anything but vague -beautiful, in fact. Dressed in a full-length light blue dress, and large, dangling earrings, I wondered how she avoided getting the slowly swaying waves of her long black hair entangled. I could see her bright brown eyes following a little diapered baby crawling erratically across the rug, both of them smiling at each other, both of them obviously delighting in the moment, however fleeting. Another newly pregnant mother, I thought, although in those days, my day sheet was just a list of names and times of appointment –no other details.

Her eyes lit up when she saw me coming across the floor to greet her, and a warm smile surfaced on her face as if it had been carefully wrapped and stored for just this occasion. For me.

I led her into my office down the hall and showed her a seat across from my desk. I have to admit I was smiling broadly by that stage as well –her face was contagious. “So what can I do for you today, Jo?” I started. I hadn’t yet learned the value of the small-talk that often helps to dispel the initial anxiety before having to confront the reason for the visit.

For a brief moment, her smile disappeared, and her eyes examined the window beside her. “I guess my doctor’s note didn’t arrive…” She summoned her eyes and promptly dropped them in her lap. The smile tried to reassume it’s command of her lips, but I could see it was having some difficulty. “It’s a bit complicated,” she said, shooing her eyes from her lap.

I smiled, picked up a pen from the desk and opened her chart to show that I didn’t mind. That I would judge just how complicated it was. It was then that I saw the note from her GP.

But before I could read it, I could feel her gaze leaning heavily on me so I looked up. I remember her expression was almost pleading with me to listen –not write.  Begging me to understand. I put the pen down and leaned forward in my seat.

“I…” she hesitated, clearly wondering how to begin. Wondering if the explanation she had memorized would suffice. “…I’m not what I seem, doctor,” she said, her voice trembling slightly.

I said nothing; I sensed it was a time for silence, even though I had not yet learned its value.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been what I seemed… But I’m 23 now, and I realize that I can’t live like this.”

I watched her face slowly dissolve into tears, so I reached for the tissues I kept on the desk, and handed her one.

She accepted it with a wrinkled smile she found somewhere and wiped her cheeks. “Sorry,” she said, the smile disappearing again despite her efforts to pin it to her lips. “It’s just that my GP didn’t know what to do with me. He said he didn’t know anybody who could help –apparently there’s nobody here in Vancouver…” She took a deep stertorous breath and grabbed another tissue from my desk. “Anyway he said you might know more about it.” Her eyes suddenly perched on my cheeks and stared at me. Through me, as if my eyes were only guardians of the doors into my head. “I’m a man, doctor…”

She –he– waited to see how I would react. She –I couldn’t help but regard Jo as a ‘she’- had obviously had uncomfortable reactions to the revelation in the past. And I couldn’t disguise my expression, I’m afraid –this was not a time of social media or tolerance of any egregious flaunting of norms. Homosexuality was beginning to evince some token acceptance in many circles, perhaps, but transsexuality was still felt to be beyond the pale. Cross-dressing was a deviance that needed to be closeted away.

Jo shrugged and sank further into her seat, as if my reaction had somehow punctured her only hope. “You know, I’m only Jo, doctor. I’m really no different from the person you met in the waiting room… I want to be that woman you greeted so innocently.” Her eyes sought mine again, like supplicants before a judge.

But in that moment, I could not judge. She was the Jo I had first met moments before –the delightful woman in the waiting room engaging with the trusting toddler. “I know,” I said with a reassuring smile, my heart taking over my words. “Let me see what I can do to help.”

And with that simple acknowledgement, Jo straightened in her chair again, her eyes alive as she adjusted an errant strand of hair that had wandered onto her now hopeful face.

Sometimes, there are surprises in all of us just waiting to be discovered.

The Human Microbiome

 

 

I have always been excited by a new paradigm. Captivated by its novelty. Intrigued by the realization that what we had previously considered to be self evident and true was not sacrosanct. Immutable. Of course I have to confess that it is often the perspective that interests me: that it sometimes okay to question the consensual adherence to a theory -to question what we have all come to believe is correct. To re-interpret the data.  Consensus establishes nothing; it only demonstrates that that we have been swayed by it. It merely lionizes a viewpoint; it does not validate it. And yet that’s Science: always open to refutation, reassessment. Change. According to Karl Popper -the great philosopher of science- a theory should only be considered scientific if it allows the possibility of being proven false.

I’ve just read a fascinating new book on the microbiome (microbiological contents) of the gut and its influence on our health (Missing Microbes, by Dr. Martin Blaser). Admittedly it’s a topic that is all the rage nowadays, but its previous neglect seems, in retrospect, to defy belief. Of course, since the Germ Theory was proposed in the mid sixteenth century, and since microbes were first observed by Anton Van Leeuwenhoek through his primitive microscope the following century, we have been at odds with them, to say the least. They seemed to be hostile to us. Alien. Their presence caused diseases, suffering, and death. We called them germs. That they could be other than enemies was inconceivable. The only good germ was a dead germ; it was obviously in our best interest to eliminate them. All of them…

And yet if they are so menacing, so evil,  why do our bodies tolerate such a large number of them? Seventy to ninety percent of all the cells in our bodies are not ours -an estimated 100 trillion enemy soldiers hidden in a Trojan horse. And inside our gates… If microbes are bad, why is our large bowel packed with them? Why would we carry around our own sources of disease? How could evolution be so stupid?

It seems blindingly obvious, in retrospect, that they must help us in some fashion. And indeed, the bowel micro-organisms are now being increasingly recognized as extremely useful; so useful in fact that one might be well advised to consider them to be another organ –as important for our health as the liver or the kidneys. It’s becoming clear that they seem to serve as co-directors of many bodily processes – immune functions most importantly perhaps, but also for digestion and production of important nutrients, suppressors of other less-friendly bacterial and viral invaders, and even regulators of energy resources -changes in gut flora may be important in obesity and diabetes, for example. We’re only beginning to understand what role they play in our health, and how altering them can alter us.

But I’m an obstetrician, un accoucheur; I deliver babies; I take care of moms and their foetuses through their pregnancies. I lay no claim to much bacteriological expertise, let alone a privileged view of its cutting edges. But as I mentioned, I was absolutely fascinated by Dr. Blaser’s book -especially the chapters about how we get the first dose of bacteria in our bowels, and how the method of delivery might alter that for good or ill. Obviously at this stage, much of this is speculation -interesting, but as yet largely unproven. But think about it: foetuses in the womb are pretty well bacteria free before they are born. They acquire bacteria only after (or during) birth. On their way down their mother’s vagina they acquire their first micro-organisms: they swallow the lactobacilli which dominate the vaginal bacteria. This helps the baby to break down lactose -the major sugar in its mother’s milk. And given the proximity of the vagina to the anus, the baby also gets its first dose of bowel bacteria -the area is not clean no matter how hard we pretend.

So what happens to the baby’s bowel flora if it never passes through the vagina and is delivered instead by Caesarian Section? Is it different? Is it deficient? And if so, does this have any long lasting effects -either good or bad? I mean, the babies seem to turn out okay…

And what about the customary prophylactic dose of antibiotics that are given preoperatively to prevent maternal infection, or the penicillin (or other antibiotic substitute) that is given to mothers who are intending to have a normal vaginal birth but are positive for Group B Streptococcus (GBS) and in labour? Some of this enters the baby, too; does it alter their bowel bacteria? Is this bad, or do the bacteria recover eventually? Does the interim bacterial alteration, come at a crucial time in the immature but rapidly developing immune system just as the baby is learning to adapt to life and its challenges outside the womb?

The difference is obviously an area that needs more study, but some of the early data are truly intriguing. Researchers have even wondered whether the mode of delivery may alter conditions in the growing child -but later (and so less easily attributable to method of delivery). Things such as asthma, or allergies are exaggerated immune responses -maybe ones not dampened by early modulation by the microbiome. And inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune dysfunction, and even diabetes may be types of genetic epiphenomena -existing genes turned on or off, dimmed or augmented- altered from an early age and possibly -maybe probably- influenced by the bacteria in the gut …

So, am I recommending we stop doing Caesarian Sections? Stop giving antibiotics? Stop wiping off babies to dry them and help their thermoregulation but also -almost a bonus- to clean them after delivery? Should we abandon all that we’ve accomplished, all that we’ve learned in the last 50 years? No, of course not. But sometimes there are options. Choices. If nothing else, it behooves us to discuss these issues with our patients  -early in their pregnancies, preferably, so that rational conversations, untainted by fear and stress, can provoke dialogue and exploration. There are consequences to every decision. So if an elective Caesarian section is chosen for reasons other than absolute necessity we -patient and doctor- must be apprised of the risks -even the potential, unproven risks of suboptimal microbiomal acquisition…

We are naturally engrossed in the prevailing paradigms -they have served us well and reduced mortality rates; we no longer fear death each time we fall ill. But we have entered an age when an increasing cohort of bacteria are becoming resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics. We need a different appreciation of micro-organisms -a paradigm shift- one that acknowledges that not all of them are malevolent; one that appreciates that they probably do more for us than they do to us. An approach that acknowledges there are far more of them than us and so we should try to use their strength to our advantage. It seems to me that, as members of the current paradigm flock, we’ve almost exhausted the meadow where we’ve successfully grazed for such a long time; we have been so happy with the pasture, so complacently wandering with the herd that we didn’t even notice a gate in the fence to an area where the grass is truly greener and more abundant.

We progress incrementally, but only when our minds are open to new ideas. New perspectives. Truth, it seems, is ever changing, and not always what we want it to be. It can be messy and unbelievable at first -uncomfortable even. But as Einstein once remarked: If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.