For my Pains, a World of Sighs

What does pain look like? An intriguing question to be sure, but one I hadn’t even thought to ask until recently. Pain is one of those things that, like St. Augustine’s quandary over Time, presents a similar difficulty in defining. The International Association for the Study of Pain made a stab at it: ‘Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage,’ but somehow, it seems to lack the immediacy of its subject matter –it stands, like an observer, outside the issue. Poets have done a better job, I think. Emily Dickinson, for example: After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs’; or Kahlil Gibran: ‘pain is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self’; or even Oscar Wilde: ‘Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask.

But I was reminded of another of Wilde’s observations -‘We who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow, have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter moments.’- when I read a CBC article from November, 2016 entitled ‘Indigenous children, stoic about their pain, are drawn out with art’ http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/aboriginal-youth-art-pain-hurt-healing-1.3852646

‘”Aboriginal children feel and experience pain just like anyone else. It’s just that they express their pain very differently,” said John Sylliboy, community research co-ordinator with the Aboriginal Children’s Hurt and Healing Initiative.

‘”They don’t necessarily verbalize their pain, or they don’t express it outwardly through crying or through pain grimaces,” he told CBC News.’

‘These children are socialized to be stoic about their pain, to hold in their pain.’- Margot Latimer, Centre for Pediatric Pain Research, IWK Health Centre in Halifax. ‘”We noticed we weren’t seeing any First Nations youth referred to our pain clinic at the IWK hospital and wondered why that was so.”‘ It didn’t make sense, she thought — especially since research shows that chronic illness in First Nations communities is almost three times higher than in the general population. Aboriginal children are especially vulnerable, says Latimer, with higher rates of dental pain, ear infections, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.’

I found it very moving, and yet disturbing, that ‘[…] cultural traditions, and lingering effects from the residential school system, are some of the reasons Indigenous kids pull on their suit of armour against pain and hurt.’ But they’re children, and perhaps not yet completely shackled to all the subtleties of culture. ‘A group of Indigenous children and teenagers from four First Nations communities in the Maritimes were asked to paint their pain, to express their hurt through art. Researchers were hoping to tease out emotions from a population more inclined to show resilience to pain.’ But soon after, the children began to depict not just physical pain, but emotional pain as well. As Sylliboy points out, ‘”These kids told us about loneliness, sadness, darkness, bullying, hopelessness. It’s not the typical anxiety [or] depression. It is more complex than that.” “To these clinicians who are just asking about physical pain and not looking at emotional pain as well, it is important, because Aboriginal kids are showing us that there is no difference between emotional and physical pain”, said Sylliboy. “It’s just pain.”‘

And I learned another thing about pain –or maybe about children – ‘It’s all about creating a safe space for the children when they come to the hospital, says Latimer.  She says it’s about learning a bit about them and gaining their trust. “When they come to the health centre, or a physician or a nurse practitioner, they want to tell their story, but we do not train health professionals to assess pain that way.”’

It reminded me of a patient I first met in the Emergency Department at the hospital when I was the gynaecologist on call one night. Edie, an aboriginal woman arrived with heavy bleeding –she was  apparently in the throes of miscarrying an early pregnancy- and had brought her eight year old son to the hospital because she had no one to take care of him at home. The bleeding settled shortly after her arrival and an ultrasound in the department revealed that there was no further tissue left in the uterus, so fortunately we didn’t have to take her to the operating room. But the process of diagnosis and decision was not instantaneous. Although the little boy, Timmy, was clearly frightened, his face stayed neutral. And yet it seemed as if he was peeking through hole in a fence, and I could see his eyes carefully following my every move. One of the nurses volunteered to sit with him in the waiting room while I examined his mother, but I was the last one he stared at before leaving; I was the thing he didn’t understand.

I decided to let Edie rest on the stretcher for a while before discharge, and I thought I’d reassure Timmy before I left. He was sitting on the too-big chair as quietly and unmoving as an adult and when I approached, he stared at me like a deer hiding in a forest.

“Your mom’s going to be okay, Timmy,” I said with a big smile.

But he still seemed just as frightened, and stayed silent for a moment. “There was blood on her pants,” he mumbled, perhaps making sure I’d noticed. He allowed his eyes to venture out further into the open and he examined me again. “And she was hurting…”

What do you tell a little boy about his mother’s suffering? I knelt down on one knee in front of him so our eyes were on the same level and put a hand on his knee. I couldn’t  think of anything else to do. “She’s not hurting now, Timmy,” I said and smiled again.

He looked at my hand and then he finally smiled. “Can she go home now?” When I nodded, he reached out and carefully touched one of my fingers, and then when I didn’t pull away, he patted my hand.

I never saw little Timmy again, but a few weeks later, Edie came to my office for a follow-up visit and to thank me for seeing her in the hospital in the middle of the night. “Timmy was really impressed,” she said and smiled. She ruffled through her purse and brought out a rumpled piece of paper she’d nonetheless folded carefully. “He drew this for you, doctor,” she said proudly, and handed it to me.

When I opened it up, it was a drawing of a hand in red crayon.

“He said it was to thank you…” She seemed embarrassed, and hesitated before continuing. “I asked him why he drew it in red…” she said.

She still seemed embarrassed, so I stayed silent until she felt ready to continue.

Edie studied me for a moment with her big brown eyes, still uncertain. Then her face relaxed and a big smile appeared. “He said maybe you were one of us, now…”

I could have cried.

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The Mystery of Pain

Obstetricians and midwives are, at times, unavoidable witnesses to pain; they wade through it, explain it, try to alleviate it, but never experience it because the physical sensation of pain cannot be transferred to anyone else. It is the one constant attendant in the labour room, the uninvited guest that, welcome or not, arrives early and departs late. It is the ghost in the room, invisible to all but the patient. Unsharable. Unprovable. Indescribable except by metaphor, analogy – it is like something: a drill, a knife, a pressure… We all realize it is there -but there, not here. We do not share in the pain; we have to believe it exists because we are told it does. It is not an objective thing, pain; it is entirely subjective –an owned phenomenon.

In a way, pain has no voice. As Virginia Woolf put it [and here I will use Elaine Scarry’s paraphrase and elsewhere, quotations from her extremely helpful book The Body in Pain]: “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.”

It is a cruel proof of the Theory of Mind: although I realize that you may have different thoughts and feelings from what is in my head, I can only guess what they are; I can never know what they are. Scarry again: “For the person whose pain it is, it is effortlessly grasped (that is, even with the most heroic effort it cannot not be grasped); while for the person outside the sufferer’s body, what is “effortless” is not grasping it (it is easy to remain wholly unaware of its existence; even with effort, one may remain in doubt about its existence …).” And indeed, “… if with the best effort of sustained attention one successfully apprehends it, the aversiveness of the ‘it’ one apprehends will only be a shadowy fraction of the actual ‘it’”.

We can only know something of what the other person is feeling if they can verbalize a suitable metaphor that we all can understand. And given the difficulty of descriptions in the setting of ongoing pain, these can be hard to find, let alone verbalize. Pain Clinics will often use aids such as the McGill Pain Questionnaire that suggest words that do other than merely measure intensity: moderate, severe, or number on a scale of ten, for example. So their vocabulary offers a choice of qualitative descriptions as well as quantitative.

But for most of us following a woman in labour, such questionnaires are unhelpful -and except for the vocabulary, almost useless, in fact. We are still left standing on the outside, trying to sense the existence of something we do not apprehend. It is not like Nietzsche calling his pain ‘Dog’ and saying “it is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog –and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it …” For us, the attendants, this is sophistry.

Pain –the verbal reaction to pain, at any rate- seems to have different ways of expression in different languages, different cultures, even different geographical regions. As Scarry notes: “… a particular constellation of sounds or words that make it possible to register alterations in the felt-experience of pain in one language may have no equivalent in a second language.” And yet it is really all about the same thing, and serves to “… confirm the universal sameness of the central problem, a problem that originates much less in the inflexibility of any one language or in the shyness of any one culture than in the utter rigidity of pain itself: its resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes but is essential to what it is.”

Empathy, which is as close as an outsider can get to the pain experienced, will have to suffice. Or -far better phrased- Shakespeare’s opinion:

A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,

We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;

But were we burdened with like weight of pain,

As much or more we should ourselves complain.

I suppose it is the ‘why’ of some types of pain that is so puzzling. The etymological root of the word itself is poena: punishment. In the end, is that really what it is: nothing more than an  arbitrary abuse meted out by a blind and indifferent Nature?  We may understand the physiology of pain, the biochemical irritants that cause it, the nerve fibers that fire in response; we may even postulate the evolutionary protective purposes it sometimes purports to serve, and yet… And yet we are still left wondering about more than the physical nature of pain. As Scarry says: “… when one speaks about ‘one’s own physical pain’ and about ‘another person’s physical pain,’ one might almost appear to be speaking about two wholly distinct orders of events… Thus pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed.”

It is a relief to find that I am not the only one who finds these disparate aspects of pain to be numinous -and the ‘why’ of pain as elusive to others as it is to myself. If the only way to describe one’s own pain, as I have already mentioned, is through metaphor, perhaps the only way to understand pain, then, is also through metaphor. Story. Literature.

Nietzsche once again: “Only great pain, the long, slow pain that takes its time… compels us to descend to our ultimate depths… I doubt that such pain makes us “better”; but I know it makes us more profound… In the end, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns newborn, having shed one’s skin… with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childlike and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before.”

I do not understand Pain, but I do not discount it. I will merely rest my discomfort on another of Shakespeare’s observations: that maybe “Pain pays the income of each precious thing.” It’s a start anyway…