Perhaps we once met, perhaps we never will.
Regardless of which it is – today I just want us to try and understand one another better. Because if we can TRY to understand one another more, then perhaps we can work together to help your patients find more holistic healing and hopefully make your job a little easier too.
I decided to try and connect with your heart today, because I know that under all those important professional masks, doctor degrees, awards, uniforms, stethoscopes, fancy clothes and endless medical guidelines….
You are simply human like me.
Today, you might be my doctor and I might be your patient.
But perhaps yesterday, today or tomorrow we will equally face the same or similar challenges in our lives. The kind of personal difficulties and traumas every human faces at times. The types of trials and wrestlings that are simply common to our humanity, and a normal part of our broken world.
Maybe tomorrow you may even face the horrible illness I am facing today. Or perhaps one day you will find that one of your loved ones is in my ‘patient shoes’ – and someone else is in your own ‘doctor shoes’.
So please could we connect as equals – as human to human.
Rather than my inferior condition to your superior position. Or my entitled demanding to your service providing.
Please would you take a moment to humbly listen, as I attempt to open my heart to you today?
First, I need you to know some of my own story for you to understand me better. To know that I have been very unwell for nearly five years now. In January 2015 I fell off a small step ladder and that one moment changed my whole life. And from that moment I was catapulted into a life of constantly being someone’s patient.
… Maybe being your patient.
During that time I have met some wonderful doctors who were able to connect with me, listen, and who tried to help me as much as they could. I appreciate them more than they will ever know.
They were bright lights in immensely dark places.
But most of the time I have met doctors who didn’t really understand. And some who didn’t seem to even want to try. I met many doctors who treated me as another inconvenience in their very busy day. Another form to fill and box to tick. The nameless, faceless puzzle to try and solve that day.
You see dear doctor…
I have a condition that you may not know much about. And even if you think you do know a lot about it, if you spent a couple of hours in my home listening to me and my family you would probably find that you don’t know as much as you think you do about my complex case. Even many ‘top neurology specialists’ don’t truly understand my condition – even though many of them think they do.
And because of that, some of you have unknowingly added to my pain, giving me wound after wound that I am still healing from today.
You see, for the past five years I have been battling a spinal CSF leak. Perhaps you have heard a bit about them. Patients can get them after lumbar punctures, epidural anaesthetic injections or spinal surgery. Recently more doctors are realising that spinal fluid leaks resulting from these procedures are probably more common than previously recognised. The truth about their devastation seems, in the past, to have been hidden – mainly because many doctors only knew of the classic acute PDPH (post dural puncture headache) symptoms; they didn’t know that you can be leaking spinal fluid and not be stuck flat 24/7. It’s possible that you can be upright a lot of the day, but still be very, very ill. Experiencing all sorts of other horrible, debilitating, distressing, rarely recognised and widely misunderstood neurological symptoms.
I acquired my leak from that step ladder fall in January 2015. More of that original story is here if you want to learn. All my scans – until recently – failed to show IH (intracranial hypotension) or evidence of a leak in my spine.
Every single day since that ladder fall I have felt exceedingly unwell. I have not had one fully pain free day. I have not experienced a single day when my mind was clear and my brain worked like it used to.
I need you to know – dear doctor – that every day is a struggle for me. I have fluctuated between being bed ridden for months on end, to months of being upright all day.
And everything in between that as well.
But never well. Never normal. Never knowing the health I used to know.
I could never fully explain to you how impossible it has sometimes felt to live like this.
Recently – after more than four years – my UK NHS specialist team think they have located my CSF Leak in my cervical spine, a ventral leak, hidden at the back my dura on new MRIs. We are currently waiting for new scans to be read and reported to confirm and categorise the leak and work out a better way forward.
I was diagnosed with a suspected spinal CSF leak two months after my original fall. For a while they thought it was post-concussion syndrome – until I was finally admitted to hospital after my third trip to A&E. An understanding neurologist finally picked up on the fact my symptoms only went away lying down. Since then I have had 8 separate MRIs, a radionuclide cisternogram and a CT myelogram of my brain and spine. Until recently, they ALL failed to show any evidence of a spinal CSF leak at all.
Can you imagine how hard it is to be so very, very ill, but lack the vital evidence that definitively PROVES to you – dear doctor – that I am leaking CSF from my spine?
I know I am as ill, and sometimes even much worse, than some of those who have the scan evidence you want to see. And yet I know that some of you still doubt me, and I know that some of you still don’t think it’s all quite true.
- Research shows that at least 25% of spinal CSF leak patients don’t show classic signs on their brain MRI. *
- Medical papers show that around 50% of patients don’t show the leak on spinal MRIs.*
And yet I still often feel that I have to ‘prove’ to you how ill I really am.
That my lack of evidence is my own curse.
My own fault maybe?
I have been there with you. Lying flat in a hospital bed as you have towered over me, asking question after question, requiring me to prove myself to you. Like I am a criminal standing in your ‘doctors court’.
With you as the ‘self appointed judge’ over my medical destiny.
Do you know how deeply you have wounded me?
To be unbelievably and traumatically ill with a ‘apparently rare’ brain condition, and then find I also have to summon up energy (I don’t have) to ‘fight my case’ in your ‘doctors court’.
Challenging me to PROVE how ill I really am.
Do you know what damage that has done to me?
You probably have no idea how much it has affected me these past five years. How much it wears me down. How much it has infected my mental and emotional stability. How much shame I have had to carry.
Simply because in your busy, overwhelming, important – and often under-valued – job, some of you seem to have forgotten that your patients are simply human.
Just like you!
We share a fragile humanity.
I know that to some of you we are simply different diagnoses that come and go. Some more complex than others. Some that don’t quite fit the ‘diagnosis box’ you are trying to force us into. Simply ‘medical cases’ – charts, scans and notes – that walk into your busy world one day…
… never to be seen again.
Do you realise how much it messes with our heads?
The reason I am writing to you today is in the hope that somehow, I can re-connect with your human heart. Maybe – just maybe – we could get better at understanding one another again. So that we don’t have to end up with all of these painful misunderstandings and confrontations, which can sap your energy just as much as mine.
I know as patients we also need to realise that you are only human too.
That you are not ‘miraculous supernatural healers’ that can defy the laws of medicine, physics and nature. You are simply humans, trying your best to help other sick humans heal up and get well. Many of you wish you could do more for us – not less. You are bound up by the ‘system’ that controls you, by ‘modern medicine’ with all its exhausting bureaucracy, targets and restrictions. We know that there are those of you with equally broken hearts who wish you could offer us more than you do.
I am sorry that we sometimes forget that you are human as well. When we get lost in our own vulnerability, shame, pain and confusion and lash out at, and blame, you unfairly. I am sorry when we also fail to treat you with the kindness, compassion and gratitude that you deserve, as you work with systems that often overwhelm you and bring you crashing to your own exhausted knees.
But today, I can only speak from what I know. I can only try and share from the heart of a very broken patient, who knows that things really do need to change.
You are all overworked and overwhelmed in many ways. And yet some of you seem to be more connected to your own humanity than others. Some of you seem to know how to connect with your patients heart to heart. Some of you achieve this despite all the many challenges of your role.
So I want to say thank you. I know that you are the ones listening to me more openly today.
Recently I have been thinking more deeply about what ‘being a patient’ can feel like for us and how to try and help you understand more – dear doctor. Especially for those of us stuck lying completely flat in a hospital bed due to a spinal CSF leak.
But also as A VOICE for your many other patients as I try to explain what it feels like for us to enter your normal vocational world.
You see, for you, the hospital is your workplace. For us, it’s often an immensely distressing place.
We are not normally there by choice, but because we know that there is no other way to get well than to come to you. So when we enter your ‘hospital work place’, we often feel so vulnerable, so confused, so distressed, so exposed, and often in so much pain.
One way to describe it to you is that we feel like we are metaphorically simply naked and exposed for you all to see.
You may not have ever been a deeply vulnerable and distressed patient yourself – so we know it’s hard for you to fully empathise and understand – but if you want to try and understand us better when you come to see us…
Can you take a moment to imagine and picture what it would feel like if it were you lying on that hospital bed, fully naked – so exposed, vulnerable and ashamed – with absolutely nothing to cover you up?
Our own masks, worldly titles, fancy clothes, make up, hairstyles and badges of honour have ALL been snatched or stolen away. So we are subsequently feeling so cold, so messy, so vulnerable, so distressed, so confused and so naked – whilst you are simply getting on with your daily grind in your normal place of work.
Please be kind to us. Please be patient with us. Please listen carefully to us. Please TRY to understand us.
Don’t stand at the foot of the bed and tower over your patient – she feels small already – take a minute, sit down, listen…Try to understand. Realise you will never understand. Try anyway.”– C. Sebastian*
Dear doctor, we feel small already… please don’t make us feel even smaller.
In our smallness you can often appear so big, so important and so intimidating. You are covered in all your doctor masks, fancy doctor clothes, doctors badges and medals of honour, and talk with your important-sounding ‘doctor speak’.
Sometimes we don’t even understand what you are saying.
Because you are not talking to other doctors; you are talking to your naked patient who already feels so very small and so very stupid lying down in that hospital bed.
Please listen carefully to us before you attack and accuse us of not feeling as ill as we say. Please open your minds to the fact that just because we don’t fit your boxes, it doesn’t mean we are not truly very, very sick.
You are meant to be our healers – not our accusers.
Dear doctor, you should know that after leaving your hospital or doctors office and perhaps never seeing you again, over the past five years I have experienced two intensely excruciating complete mental health collapses. I have also found myself close to those places again and again.
And in those places – normally when I completely relapse physically, I stop sleeping and have no energy to fight anymore – in those places, all of my traumatic memories of encounters with intimidating and insensitive doctors return to me. I picture you as scary ‘doctor-judges in the medical court’, and I don’t have the energy to try and ‘prove myself’ to you again, and face getting my case thrown out with the lack of suitable evidence.
So I want to just give up.
Dear doctor, did you know that in those dark and distressing places my broken and exhausted mind decides that death might be my only way out. The only escape from the constant battles. The only way to end the never-ending fight. The only way to stop having to defend and prove myself again and again to another intimidating ‘doctor-judge.’
Did you know that your insensitive words and actions one day could indirectly contribute to my death?
Do you realise how serious that is?
You see, when my impossible medical journey pushes me to places beyond what I can endure, when my mind packs in and my body breaks down due to the immense stress and strain of daily battling a debilitating and distressing misunderstood neurological illness year after year…
I end up feeling more broken, more vulnerable, more distressed, more naked and smaller and smaller than ever before.
I feel like a worthless and insignificant judged ‘chronically-ill’ nobody. Who just cannot get well. However hard I try.
Dear doctor, I then need you to know that I need you to see me as…
Just another naked and vulnerable human patient…
…. looking for someone to help cover me up. Someone who can put a blanket of compassion, kindness and hope over me so that I won’t feel so very very cold, ashamed and completely overwhelmed from the fight.
I am your naked patient.
So please understand that in my nakedness, all I can see is all your importance, all your knowledge, all your intimidation, all your doubts about me and my case, all your intelligence and words I don’t always understand.
So you scare me!!!
I can no longer see your equal humanity; I can only see my naked inferiority beside your beautifully adorned superiority.
So dear doctor, please be gentle with me. I am not as strong as you think. My heart has been broken and wounded again and again. Some days I just think I will sink.
All I see is my broken humanity. All I see is my naked vulnerability.
So dear doctor, today I wanted to connect with your heart. I wanted to try and reach you, human to human.
As your equal.
To please ask you…
When I feel that naked, the best way to help me is to remember that underneath all of your adorned and celebrated doctor-robes, you are just a naked human too. You may not feel it so much today… or even tomorrow. You may not really ever understand what I am actually trying to say.
But please try and imagine yourself as that naked patient, lying in that hospital bed. And think about how you can move a little closer to our inflicted lowered level and status; to sit down, to listen, to try and understand…
Whilst realising you can never fully understand.
But please do TRY anyway.
Because one day…
That naked patient…
Might be you!
And then you will want to meet a kind and gentle doctor, who can also relate and connect to your vulnerable and exposed naked humanity.
And I hope that they will try to bring you more holistic healing….
Rather than inflicting wound after wound after wound... that can sometimes be even harder to heal from than the original condition over which you met.
Sent, with heartfelt tears, gratitude and deep respect for your willingness to listen and learn,
Your naked patient
“Don’t stand at the foot of the bed and tower over your patient – she feels small already – take a minute, sit down, listen…Try to understand. Realise you will never understand. Try anyway.” – C. Sebastian*Quote from this beautifully insightful TED talk on encouraging ‘Narrative Humility’ in the medical profession.
Narrative Humility: Sayantani DasGupta at TEDxSLC youtu.be/gZ3ucjmcZwY
UPDATE: Please note that in August 2020 I was also diagnosed with arachnoiditis as well as a spinal CSF Leak – I now have radiological evidence to support both those diagnosis. To read more about the new diagnosis please see this link.
For more posts about my story of living with a spinal CSF Leak please look at the subject heading on the menu bar above.
Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.
*Please see this new May 2018 medical paper about the 10 most common myths and misperceptions about spinal CSF leaks. It is by some of the top world experts in treating this condition. I was told so many of these myths by various neurologists, anaesthetists, radiologists and many other doctors during my lengthy and traumatic nearly 5 year battle with a spinal CSF leak. This kind of misinformation caused many delays, misunderstanding and great distress on my already immensely long winded and difficult medical journey.
*Please also see this other in depth 2018 medical paper about both low and high intracranial pressure syndromes and their similar and different symptoms. It also mentions cross overs with other headache types. When a patient suffers with a spinal CSF leak long term it can cause massive fluctuations in their whole pressure system both whilst suffering from a spinal CSF leak and following treatment. This is why lumbar puncture pressure readings and ICP pressure monitoring can prove an inaccurate disgnostic tool for SIH as this paper refers to as does the 10 myths paper. My initial LP reading was a 7 which was considered ‘evidence’ of low pressure by some doctors and normal by others.