Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Being the age I am, I have been to the hospital a number of times. Part of getting older is an increased experience in what is sometimes called "the organ recital," conversations that center around one ailment or another, one infirmity or another, one loss of ability or another. I see nothing wrong with discussing what concerns you most, although some people do seem to make a veritable cottage industry out of "the organ recital."

At the times I have been to the hospital, I have been in rooms that are decorated with what I think of as medical art -- colorful renderings of a heart or kidneys or lungs or other organs that may be up for discussion. Personally, I would rather look at some hotel/motel art ... some cheap reproduction of a field of daffodils or sailboats in a harbor. Generally, I go to a doctor to get something fixed, not receive an anatomy lesson. Some people may find such things useful and doctors may be consoled, but I find them irritating and mildly idiotic.

But on the idiocy scale, the one that gets my goat the most is the "pain chart" -- a rendering of several line-drawing faces depicting everything from smiles to tears. "Looking at the pictures, which one would you say describes your pain level best?" the nurse or doctor may say in a professionally-caring tone. Perhaps this approach has some function when dealing with children, but even with children, it strikes me as self-serving and, well, idiotic.

First of all, outside a hypochondriac, who goes to a hospital or for a doctor visit because they just feel so damned good? Second and more important, who could ever adequately or usefully quantify pain? The whole exercise strikes me as a way for doctors and nurses to deflect from themselves the responsibility they have taken on ... to assist those in need ... an assistance that requires attention and assessment. Diagnosis derived from a patient's reaction to a wall chart strikes me as being only a small step up (if that) from a witch doctor who never heard of medical school.

Pain is not quantifiable, least of all some dimwit chart. It is not "like" anything at all. Things that are "like" something else rely on past experience and if past experience were any guide, no woman in her right mind would ever have another child. Pain, like pleasure, is right now. It is sui generis... always. People may do their futile best to repeat pleasurable experiences and to avoid painful ones, but it never works. There simply are no comparisons. Pain is right now.

In Buddhism, I have heard it said that "suffering" (the realm of both literal and psychological uncertainty and discomfort) is simply the resistance to pain. And the training of Buddhism is partly aimed not so much at reducing or eradicating discomfort as it is to see through the resistance to it. No one can escape what is right now. No one can define what is right now. But there is the ability to look into it and to check out the resistance.

In the medical profession these days, pills are frequently the solution of choice. Show me the smiley face and I will show you a pill. I see nothing wrong with pills, but I see no reason to deny idiocy either. If a doctor has the knowledge and skill to ameliorate existing conditions, well, thank you very much. But I see no reason to pretend that a chart can portray or explain what is right now. And if a doctor or nurse, with all of his or her training and skill, cannot adequately nail down the right-now, why should I pretend that I can?

Just because a pastime is popularly accepted is no reason to excuse or deny your own experience. My sense is that most of us are idiotic enough without adding more fuel to the flames. Aside from anything else, it's just too painful.

1 comment:

  1. Having had a significant portion of my spine fused, I've always felt that I knew something about pain. But my first experience of what was diagnosed as a migraine put me in the ER. They asked me how much it hurt on a scale of 1 to 10. Not being in the mood to do much math, and presuming they hadn't been listening and needed it brought home, I offered 27. An understanding was apparently arrived at as they didn't ask again.