The Stand

“So, do you have a stand on that, then?” She was smartly dressed in jeans and what looked to be an expensive white silk blouse and divided her eyes between my face and a little notebook in her lap. Whenever I said something she liked, she would scribble furiously and noisily in it. Otherwise it was silent -a non-attributable form of media manipulation? The noise amused me more than anything.

“I thought we’d already established that I like to hear what the patient is saying and then try to diagnose…” -I thought I’d sprinkle a few medical terms at her- “… what it is that she is trying to tell me.” I stared at her silent notebook and then added: “There’s more to conversation than words.” Her face took on the look of a dog that hears a noise it can’t locate. I could tell I was losing her. “You know: tone of voice, cadence of speech, body language…”

Her expression softened, and there were a few cursory scratches of pencil on paper. “A bit wish-washy. I’m trying to get at what you actually believe.” She said the word as if there were discrepancies in my answers so far.

“I believe…” –I thought I’d italicize the word as well- “…that it’s important to understand what my patient believes -read between her lines, if you will.”

“Her lines?”

Well, that metaphor was lost on her. “The lines, then.” Silence: pen gripped tightly but motionless, eyes fixed, breath held. More was expected: an addendum. “I mean that sometimes a person says one thing , but actually means something else that they’re afraid to say… Or maybe haven’t really decided what they think.”

Her brow crinkled -rather cute,  I thought. “But you’re the doctor! Wouldn’t you have an opinion on what she was telling you?”

I took a deep breath but tried to disguise it in case that would somehow get translated into pencil scratches. “If I knew what she was telling me, I suppose it might help me to direct my subsequent questions more appropriately…”

“But,” she interrupted, pencil at the ready, “let’s say the woman has already come in to see you with… a situation…” I suspect she thought she was being sensitive with that choice of words. Politically neutral. “Wouldn’t that in itself give you the information you need?”

I shifted into my bland I’m-not-sure-what-you-mean mode that I often find helpful in the office. “Information, yes; solution, no.”

“But…”

I’m still not sure why I had agree to be interviewed. Not really. Superficially I suppose it was because one of my colleagues was doing abortions and had a recent complication with the procedure -through no fault of his own, I might add. The woman had tried to self-induce a termination of her pregnancy, failed, become seriously infected, and then sought medical help from my colleague. He performed his job admirably and saved her life through his own skill and knowledge, but someone had leaked the ‘complication’ to the press and the whole event had been misconstrued. So perhaps I’d wanted to set things straight. But that’s not what this journalist saw as her mission. I suspect she actually wanted to know the opinion of a gynaecologist who worked in an ostensibly Catholic hospital.

I’d tried to dissuade her from that approach at the start, but to no avail. Now I was becoming a little annoyed at her persistence. But if the truth be recognized, it was her agenda that bothered me the most. I put on my best doctor smile and sat back in my chair. “Perhaps it might be a good time for you to be more specific. What is the question that you are leading up to?” Somewhere inside I blushed at my ending the sentence with a preposition and wondered if that might be one of the few sentences that she would quote in her article.

She gripped the pencil tightly; I could see the bones in her hand standing at attention just under her skin. “Doctor, you work at a Catholic hospital, do you not?” I nodded, but it was one of her conditions for the interview in the first place. “What do you think of abortions, then?”

My smile continued without interruption. I knew that was what she wanted, and had expected it at the beginning. And yet the question, at least for me, was irrelevant: where I work does not determine what I think. And what I think does not interfere with how I manage a patient with a problem. The journalist was staring at me, pencil poised, a subsequent question rolling around in her mouth just waiting for my answer. “Would you care to contextualize that?” I said, knowing full well she would have no idea what I meant.

“Pardon me?”

I crossed my arms and leaned forward on the desk that I had been careful to sit behind at the start of the interview. “You asked me what I thought of abortion. You might as well have asked me what I thought of fibroids…”

“I… I don’t see…”

“No, you don’t do you? Well let me put things into context for you, then. Abortions? I wish they were unnecessary. But then I also wish that people only became pregnant when they chose. And if they chose. In life, things happen, and not always for the best. I don’t much approve of smoking either, but that doesn’t mean that if a person were to become ill because they smoked I wouldn’t try my best to help them. Or in my own field, if they were to develop chlamydia or gonorrhea that I wouldn’t help them because they hadn’t used a condom, or maybe adhered to my own person moral preferences.

“Am I an ethical relativist? You might better ask me if I am a doctor. If you were to walk through that door looking for help, my first question would not be whether we had the same belief systems or the same cultural norms. No, it would be what can I do to help you? In other words, how are you suffering? And if I asked you about your sexual practices, or preferences it would not be to criticize, but to help in the diagnosis and treatment of the condition for which you had sought my help.”

“Are you Pro-Choice then?” I could see the words forming on her lips before she uttered them.

“We all have choices and I respect that. It’s not for me to interfere; I am not the person who has to make them. But I prefer to think of myself as Pro-Help… Perhaps I am the sounding board that helps you to make the Choice for yourself.”

With that she tucked her pencil and the notebook in a little shoulder bag and stood up. She sighed deeply and demonstrably. I had wasted fifteen or twenty minutes of her time. Now she was going to have to find another doctor to interview, I supposed. I stood up and extended my hand to shake, but she took it somewhat reluctantly, I think. “I’m sorry you decided not to commit yourself, doctor.”

I’m assuming it was a subtle put-down, but I allowed my smile to dance a moment longer on my face until I tucked it carefully away. “Actually, I think I did,” I said, and ushered her out of the room.

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Early Morning Musings

There are times -often early in the morning after just getting to bed and then being awakened again to go to the Operating Room for some emergency, or more commonly, the Case Room for a delivery- when I wonder why I chose the field I did. After all, I could have gone into Pathology where microscopes never phone, or maybe Dermatology where a rash can usually wait until daylight to be evaluated. Things seem so much worse in the middle of the night.

But then dawn rolls around and things don’t seem so bad. I reconsider and re-evaluate the malevolence of the night and in the new light, I find I have new thoughts. Fresh thoughts. Happy thoughts, though seen through the aching of fatigue and the haze of bleary, reddened eyes. I am, I realize again and again, a Morning person. I relish the colours that spill over the sky from the newly born sun; I look forward to the world self-lit. I am an unabashed pantheist with respect to the freshly washed day. And I realize anew what a privileged life I live and what I have still to learn.

There are daily happenings I struggle to express -little things perhaps, but deeply meaningful in their context. Profound, even. Like the delivery of a child in the wee small hours to a woman with a major cardiac anomaly -one that may have ended in death in a setting less prepared than ours. My role as an accoucheur was admittedly minor -a technician really- but still, I was caught up in the moment. The woman smiled so loudly when I handed her the healthy infant that I just had to say to the beaming husband that he really had a special wife. There was a language barrier to be sure, but he shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said “Of course she’s special!” as if it was so obvious it didn’t even need to be said. I had to turn away so he wouldn’t see the little tear forming in my eye.

Or the time, a world away in Newfoundland, when I tried to bring some Western Canadian Wisdom to a staunchly self-reliant culture. I was working in the small little village of St.Anthony at the Grenfell Mission -a mission dedicated to ‘improving the health, education, and social welfare of people in coastal Labrador and northern Newfoundland’. I was a freshly minted specialist and too full of training to be mindful of the situation. I’d just seen a middle-aged woman with extremely heavy and frequent menses. She’d come to see me along with her obviously concerned husband, a local fisherman. I did what I had been taught in the big city schools and proceeded to discuss the differential diagnosis with them and the various treatment options available. After what must have been a lengthy monologue I asked them what option they preferred. I remember they both looked at each other for the longest time, and then at me. “Well, the way I figures it,” the husband said glancing at his wife, “When my family’s hungry, I don’t ask them fish in my boat what they wants. I jes do what I needs to do, boy. So do what you needs to do; fix my wife!”

Sometimes a difficult decision has to be made, and although the situation mandates explaining the reasons to the patient and their loved ones, and their opinions canvassed, in the final analysis they expect me to make a decision in their best interest. They have no way of knowing all the background that goes into making the best decision; ultimately and for better or worse, the buck, the expert opinion, really does stop with me -and the treatment if they agree. It’s a weighty thing to have to be a final arbiter; after all, they may disagree and seek a second opinion. But ultimately, a decision must be made by somebody. And that’s what they want: however onerous the responsibility, most are seeking someone to take charge of the situation. To do something.

But you know, it’s not all death and taxes. There are some truly delightful moments, even in the dead of night. I had been following a friendly couple through their labour and in the course of my visits as the night wore on, I discovered that he was a violist in the Symphony Orchestra. Although they were playing that evening, he didn’t want to take the chance of missing the delivery of his first and anxiously awaited child. But in case she delivered early, he’d brought his viola and it sat in its little black shell in the corner. He never so much as glanced at it as far as I could tell. Unfortunately, labour did not progress as we had hoped and so somewhere around three A.M. I decided she needed a Caesarian Section. They were both disappointed, of course -so was I, in fact- but were both reassured by the ability of being together in the OR. And yet as I checked to make sure her epidural was working and then made the skin incision, I wondered aloud where he was. It had seemed so important to him to be there with her. I asked her about it. “Oh, don’t worry about him,” she said from behind the drapes. “He’s got it all planned.”

I could see the anaesthesiologist grinning behind his mask: he was obviously in on a surprise. For me, the only surprises so far were the father’s absence, and the fact that the doors to the OR were wide open -something that would never be allowed during the busy daytime hours. So I continued with the operation and in a few minutes extracted a big, healthy and screaming baby. Suddenly, echoing along the empty corridor outside I could hear a viola playing Happy Birthday. You can’t wipe your eyes when you are scrubbed -a nurse had to do it. But only after she’d wiped her own. I still can’t listen to the tune without a sigh and a deep breath.

My field is hard and at times difficult, but there are moments… Many of them, in fact.

The surgical option

I’m not opposed to the surgical option, it’s just that there are many roads to Rome, and sometimes an indirect route is more satisfying. Don’t misunderstand; I’m an Ob/Gyn surgeon. It’s what I do, but not to the exclusion of everything else. There are times when surgery is necessary, life-saving, difficult to avoid. There are few ethical or acceptable options available in the case of a ruptured tubal pregnancy, for example. The patient presents in the emergency department bleeding internally, often in shock, sometimes requiring an immediate blood transfusion. Things do not go favourably for her if there is any delay in stopping the bleeding -operating, in other words.

On the other hand, fibroids -benign uterine muscle growths- present a different spectrum of choices. In the past -admittedly with fewer therapeutic tools at their disposal- surgery was the favored option if they were at all symptomatic. Medications meant to slow their growth or decrease vaginal bleeding, were fraught with side effects and seldom satisfactorily resolved the problem. Pain, anemia, or increasing symptoms from the ever-expanding tumours were often the only alternatives to surgery. And because there was a long-honoured tradition of removal, surgery was expected, maybe even desired. If all the female members of your family had hysterectomies, you might be inclined to view yours as inevitable, even if undesirable.

But there is a profound difference between life-saving surgery, and elective surgery. In the latter, options become important. The ability, and knowledge to be able to choose solutions, to see if they will work or even lessen the burden of the condition is an important step in problem solving. Moving from a simple attempt at life style or diet modification for, say, painful periods, to medications of increasing sophistication -and cost- to a hormone-containing intrauterine device, to laparoscopic investigation of the pain in the operating theatre might be a sensible route to follow. Or at least to know about.

For fibroids causing heavy menstrual bleeding -they don’t all do this, by the way- the use of antiprostaglandin medications (ibuprofen being the most widely known of these) to attempt to decrease the bleeding, maybe followed , if necessary, by the progesterone-containing intrauterine device if appropriate, and then if that fails, blocking off the blood supply to the artery that is responsible for providing nutrients to the growing fibroid (embolization)- all of these could be considered before resorting surgery.

Clearly there are features of each problem that might suggest other creative adaptations, although my point is not that they should be chosen, but rather acknowledged. We all have a right to determine our own unique paths through the thorns of life, and we should be given enough background and knowledge to allow us to make informed choices -choices whose logic and consequences we can understand. In  non-life threatening situations we may make a choice we regret, but if there are a series of progressively more serious options, we would probably be more accepting of their side-effects than if we had been forced into the treatment before we were ready.

Yes, I am a surgeon, and if surgery were the correct choice all along, then you will work your way along the path and eventually realize that for yourself. And come to accept it. It’s not my place to force you there. I am neither your father nor your boss. I do not possess absolute knowledge of the inevitable consequences of your actions. I see myself as merely a guide through a dark and often confusing forest, pointing out each fork in the road and offering suggestions that years of experience have taught me about the smoother trail.

It is, I hope, what doctors do.