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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Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.

What is a friend? I think I could parallel St. Augustine’s answer about Time: ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.’ Friendship is such a universal concept, such an acknowledged need, I’m not sure why it is difficult to define. Perhaps it is so much a part of our Umwelt that the only aspect of it that becomes consciously discernible is its absence. It is our air…

But of late, it seems to me that its meaning has been further eroded, further diluted, by its use in social media. It is now a verb as well as a noun –all well and good if we are willing to enrol people as friends much as we might solicit them to join a political party, or consider anybody that smiles at us as worthy of the designation.

Obviously, friendship is a spectrum and simply because we use the same word to designate the entire range does not reveal much about the meaning or the importance of its constituents to us. In a sense, if used generically and without a more descriptive adjective, the word is an empty shell –‘Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ as Macbeth said of Life. And that life is actually not so full of friends -‘Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.’ to quote Macbeth out of context once again. We do not have as many friends as we think –nor is it even possible to sustain the emotional effort necessary to acquire and succour more than five, or so, close friends. http://nyti.ms/2baJQPL

So, I suspect we should be careful how we use the term and in what context –for what purpose. The number of ‘friends’ we think we have are akin to the denominator of a fraction. It’s the numerator –the number of close friends- that determine the size. The value… I would have thought this was so obvious as to be almost trite. Uninteresting. But maybe the idea that a friend is someone requiring at the very least, an ongoing personal, non-virtual, interaction is a generational thing. Am I just having a semantic argument with myself; am I merely a Cassandra unable to understand that it is only my opinion that is being contested, and that its tenets have already been superseded? Food for thought…

And yet, there are consequences. Sometimes it is best to check in the rear-view mirror from time to time.

*

I’ve always liked Jennifer. She is a twenty-something year old woman I have known for several years now. I first met her because of a minor abnormality of her pap smear, and have seen her every year or so since then. I think she sits in the same place in the waiting room each time, too; I always associate her with the seat in the corner by the window –the one partially hidden by the Areca palm. She’s a small person, and her never-varying outfit of jeans and sweatshirt seem to blend beautifully with the green of the plant. Even her dark, shoulder-length hair sometimes resembles the type of shadow I imagine the plant would cast if it could… I don’t know why I think that; maybe because they’re both quiet. Both still. Both background.

The other day when I saw her in her usual spot, she was typing away furiously on her cell phone. She looked on edge, and the troubled expression did not disappear even when she saw me smile and walk across the carpet to greet her.

There’s often an easy-to-spot anxiety in some patients –the kind I usually can’t hide when the dentist ushers me into his chair- but I knew Jennifer, and the referral note just said she was back for a repeat pap smear.

“You look worried today, Jennifer,” I said when we were both seated in my office. “Are you concerned about the pap smear?”

She’d put the phone in her pocket and was staring absently at a terra cotta woman sitting on an oak stand with her begging bowl. I’d had it there for years, so Jennifer had certainly seen it before. She shook her head, but left her eyes gently stroking its contours. “She always makes me relax… I’m glad she’s still here.” I could see her trying to disguise a sigh. “It’s nice that some things stay the same…” She was quiet for a moment as she thought about it. “…Stay the way they’re supposed to be,” she added to herself as she moved her eyes slowly over to my desk like sleeping birds and left them lying there. They didn’t see me, I don’t think.

I waited for her to continue, but she merely repositioned her attention onto her lap. “What do you mean?” I asked, when it became clear that she needed to talk about it.

Up flew the eyes to the box of tissues on the desk and she grabbed a handful to wipe away some tears. “It’s nothing about my pap smears,” she said in a hoarse voice. “I don’t need to take up your time…”

“The pap smear talk can wait for a bit, Jennifer. Tell me what’s upsetting you.” I smiled reassuringly, but her eyes never reached my face.

She took a deep and stertorous breath and then decided to send them on a reconnaissance flight in my direction. “Oh, it’s just my ‘friends’,” she said, making sure I understood that there were quote marks around the word. “I invited all 147 of them to like a business website that I’m starting…”

I have to admit that I was a bit confused. “Like? As in Facebook ‘like’ you mean?” I had no idea what message that sent. A friend had once asked me to ‘like’ her barbershop on Facebook and I had duly complied –it seemed simple enough… and if it made her feel good, what the heck, eh?

She nodded, although I could tell by her face that perhaps I shouldn’t have needed to clarify such an obvious point.

“And…?”

She took a deep breath and shrugged. “And, well I guess I don’t really have 147 friends.”

I didn’t ask her how she knew -I figured that was probably obvious, too. But I must have looked surprised, because she giggled at the notion. “I mean I didn’t really think they’d all like the page, but…”

I had to chuckle –I couldn’t help myself. “I don’t even know that many people, Jennifer. I mean not counting patients…” I quickly corrected, as her face interrogated me in disbelief.

“How many friends do you have on Facebook, doctor?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know… I mean, counting my kids and a few close friends… twenty, maybe…?”

She thought about that for a few seconds. “I don’t know how I got so many.” She glanced at the statue again. “Sort of like collecting tee shirts, I guess. They look so nice in the store, but I hardly ever wear them.”

A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Do you know how many ‘liked’ your… uhmm, page?” I tried to sound knowledgeable about the words, but to tell the truth, I was on slippery ground and I think it showed.

She caught her eyes, before they completed a roll and managed to salvage a serviceable smile out of what I’m sure was headed for a smirk. Then her eyes twinkled without her planning on it, and she giggled with delight at my expression. “Only seven, so far…”

It was my turn to nod, and I sat back in my chair as I did so. “Well maybe you come out the winner, then…”

She tilted her head, as cute as a button, and I could see the adult stirring behind the mirror of her eyes.

“Now you know what ‘friend’ really means…” I said, smiling.

Her eyes hovered around my face for a moment before they returned to their owner, and I think she blushed.