Medical Revisionism

Words -that’s all they are: sounds that by their very presence magically communicate meaning. They are more than mere noise or background. They are not the wind rustling through the leaves, nor the sounds of a frog in a pond; in a way, they are entities that resolve uncertainty, and in as much as they can be interpreted, contain information. Data. So, in a sense, they transcend Time: the information in the words of an ancient document still exists. But information is subject to interpretation; the same data may be seen as having different meaning as time and societal norms change. But does that change the information conveyed? I think not.

I’ve covered this topic in previous blogs (for example: https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/whats-in-a-name-cancer/ ) but the topic is a source of continuing intrigue for me, so I was once again interested in seeing it broached in an article in the BBC News last fall: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-ouch-34385738  It seems we are constant and insatiable revisionists. It’s as if by changing the descriptor, we somehow alleviate the pejoration its ancestor accumulated. And yet the information remains; only the colour changes.

I suppose that this is useful, but I can’t help but wonder if there is some other way of doing it. Of course, some words seemed to have been coined originally with a belittling intent -Cripple springs to mind- and even without our penchant for viewing the machinations of history through modern eyes, the word is disparaging; it is simply not fair. It derives from the Old English word crypel which has the suggestion of creeping. It was a condition in clear need of a new term.

Other words were more naively-attempted descriptions –designations that were no doubt thought to help others picture what was being named. There was unlikely to have been any attempt at denigration -despite how they might now offend or upset us. Mongolism is one such term. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary:mongol, or Mongoloid, was adopted in the late 19th century to refer to a person with Down syndrome (named after John L. H. Down [1828–96], the English physician who first described it), owing to the similarity of some of the physical symptoms of the disorder with the normal facial characteristics of eastern Asian people. The syndrome itself was thus called mongolism.’ But the problem remains –what happens when the term ‘Down Syndrome’ itself also becomes offensive?

Sometimes, it seems to me, the words will also change for no apparent reason. Think of the various expression changes for sexual diseases over the years and the somewhat clumsy attempts to strip the prejudice out of them. When I first started medical school, the expression was ‘venereal disease’ –or VD. Then, when that became too pejorative, or at least discriminatory, it morphed into STD (‘sexually transmitted disease’), and currently STI for ‘sexually transmitted infection’… Or am I already out-of-date? The reason for any of these transformations, however, is totally beyond me.

Words, it seems –or maybe it’s me– just can’t keep up. Maybe, like Fashion, they’re bound to change because of user-boredom or a need for novelty, but I think it’s probably deeper than that. I suspect that it relates more to societal attitudes than societal ennui. And I think that it may be a lost cause to expect consistency of usage. As we change our approach to issues and our opinions, so we change our words to describe them. It starts off with the more curmudgeonly amongst us –usually those for whom tradition provides a stable and secure platform- proclaiming the changes to be ‘political correctness’- to use the current phrase. But then, gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, the expression achieves a common parlance and not using it courts sideways glances, or even incomprehension. It is, perhaps, an aurally measurable example of society’s changing attitudes, if not its mores.

My biggest complaint, however –although minor in the scheme of things- is that it seems a waste of perfectly good words. One of my favourite ones ‘awe’ and its brother ‘awesome’ which used to bespeak a form of reverence, was ripped from my useful vocabulary only a few years ago and I’ve never really gotten over it. The words now have little value -they’re the scrapings from a different, grander time. Crumbs. Leftovers.

I am reminded of the words of Moth, the page of the soldier Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost by Shakespeare: ‘They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps.’ 

PTSD in Gynaecology?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by being exposed to a traumatic or frightening event. It has been described in various guises since antiquity: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-30957719, but although we have traditionally ascribed it to military veterans, it is by no means confined to those who have been in the midst of battle. Paramedics, police officers, and various other sorts of first-responders are also exposed to frightening and traumatic events. The DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has even allowed a variant for those emergency workers even if they are only exposed to disturbing videos in the conduct of their jobs.

So I suppose it should not come as too much of a surprise that someone would take the leap and wonder whether the public, exposed as we all are to social media, would be at risk as well: http://www.bps.org.uk/news/viewing-violent-news-social-media-can-cause-trauma   There followed the usual offence at what seemed like an attempt to demean the diagnosis of PTSD in those felt more worthy of its acquisition, and in conditions far more important and deserving, but nonetheless there is a spectrum of manifestation inherent in most diagnoses.

The BBC posted a helpful primer on PTSD http://www.bbc.com/news/health-26867615 but in brief, the diagnosis requires: flashbacks to the event, avoidance behavior, sleep disturbance, and mood changes.

I have to say I was skeptical that we should even consider that anything found on social media could have such an important impact that could in any way be considered PTSD –however attenuated. It seemed almost an insult, a belittling of those who had undergone real trauma. Until, that is, I remembered Lucille.

She was a young lady visiting from another province who had been sent to me for a second opinion from the emergency department at the hospital across the street. Her problem was abdominal pain –chronic and unexplainable pain in the pelvic region, for which she had been thoroughly investigated elsewhere with ultrasounds, CT scans, an MRI and even –no doubt in desperation- a laparoscopy four or five years ago to view the area more directly. And all, said the accompanying note, were normal.

She was not what I was expecting; rather than an anxious woman sitting quietly in the waiting room with her face locked in pain, instead I found a smiling, smartly dressed young lady happily talking to the pregnant woman in the seat beside her. She smiled when I walked over and immediately extended her hand for me to shake.

“I’m so happy you could see me on such short notice,” she said as I led her down the corridor to my office. And she did indeed seem cheerful and, well, normal as she seated herself across from my desk by the window. “What a wonderful view of the ocean from here,” she almost purred, staring past the buildings and traffic at the almost-invisible water far in the distance. “Vancouver is such a wonderful city…”

I sensed her cheer was other than completely genuine, as her words wound down and slowed. Sometimes, with chronic conditions like pain, I like to wait until the patient is ready to speak -unprovoked, as it were. Unencumbered by a line of questioning known all too well to her that leads… nowhere. She was silent for a while as she turned her attention to the office itself, her eyes alighting like sparrows first on a painting on the wall, then on a wooden carving from Ethiopia I had placed on the desk so it looked out between the leaves of a plant. They stopped no place for long, revisiting their favoured twigs almost at random.

“Offices are all different, aren’t they?” I said, to begin the conversation.

She nodded thoughtfully. “I suspect they reveal a lot about the doctors…”

“And the patients who notice.” It provoked another smile.

Her face became serious –a major change. “Look, I don’t want to waste your time, doctor. I’m certainly grateful you could see me, but maybe I should wait until I get back to Ontario to get it checked out.”

“It..?” She looked down at her lap, as if the little sparrows were tired of flitting about. “The note from the ER said you were having some pain… Care to tell me a bit about it?”

She still seemed reluctant to look up. “Oh, I get these pains every now and then. No big deal, though.”

She risked a glance and I immediately seized the opportunity. “Well, suppose I just take a brief history and then if you feel you want to wait till you get back to Ontario, I can fill your doctor in as to what happened while you were here in paradise.”

She nodded her assent and for the first time, her eyes didn’t flee from my face. Was it hope? Or merely resignation that it was beginning again?

We all expect that we will be able to find the treasure where nobody has succeeded before, but the only thing I could discover in her history that might be remotely related to her pain was an episode of Chlamydia –a sexually transmitted condition- several years before. It had been treated and subsequent cultures had demonstrated cure. “When did the pain start?” I asked, almost as an afterthought, but I think she could see through my strategy.

The memory seemed uncomfortable to her, and she looked out the window again.

After an awkward moment of fidgetting silence, I said, “Sexual diseases are always difficult to talk about, I think…”

“My friend didn’t think so,” she suddenly blurted out before I could even finish my poorly worded attempt to console her. “She got an STI and had to be hospitalized when it spread through her abdomen… They even had to operate to remove the pus. She sent me a picture of her tubes they took during the operation…” She looked as if she were about to cry, but grabbed a tissue from the desk and dabbed her eyes to recover. She lapsed into a morose silence and turned her head so she could see the door.

“You know, I’d been fond of the guy who gave it to me; I’d gone out with him for a couple of years… And yes we used condoms!” She stabbed me with a sudden glare and turned her head away again. “I did everything right, but I still got it.” She sighed heavily and stared at her lap again. “I mean, how do I know I don’t still have it -but without symptoms? Or that I haven’t gotten it again from somebody?” Her hands were nervously clasping and unclasping. “They did a laparoscopy shortly after the infection and it was normal, but that was years ago…”

The time for my questions was over; I let her talk.

“I read that PID [pelvic inflammatory disease] can be silent after an infection and the damage can be going on even without symptoms…” She considered that for a second or two. “I suppose I twisted my doctor’s arm to do the laparoscopy. But anyway, she didn’t find anything. Nothing abnormal.” Another sigh. But my girlfriend kept warning me about it, so of course I read as much about it as I could online. I even looked at videos of operations for PID…” Her eyes teared up immediately. “I couldn’t stop looking at them,” she managed to whisper between sobs. “They were terrible! Frightening: great slimy fat tubes stuck to bowels and everything… And in some of the videos, when they tried to dissect them, there was blood everywhere! And pus oozing out of dark little spaces the tubes had walled off…” She considered the implications of what she’d said and closed her eyes briefly. Hid behind her face. “I’ve hardly had sex since that Email and I’m never going to trust anybody again,” she blurted out abruptly with her fists clenched. “I mean I keep thinking about those videos; I wake up in the middle of the night, and there they are, running through my mind!”

She stared at my face for a second. “You think I’m stupid for watching all those videos, don’t you?” she yelled at me. “But I couldn’t help it! I just knew that it was going on inside of me: big fat greasy sausages filled with sticky white ooze..!” And then, just as suddenly she stood up and pinned me to the wall with venomed eyes. “You’re the same as all the rest, you know. And I know you don’t believe me!”

She turned and walked to the door. “And don’t bother sending anything to my doctor in Ontario, either. I’m gonna find another one.”

She disappeared through the door leaving me wondering how I could have handled things differently. But in a moment a head poked around the door again –but only briefly. Awkwardly. “I’m sorry doctor… You’re really great! Honestly.” And then it disappeared into whatever hellish world it was forced to inhabit.

Did she have PTSD? A variation of it somewhere on the spectrum? Or was she just embarrassed that she’d disclosed so much to a stranger? I suppose I’ll never know, but I hope that somebody, somewhere, takes her seriously. She, just like anybody else with PTSD has a life to live. Deserves to live.