Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Received Wisdom of Doctors

Don't believe it.

Some of the earliest advice given to me after the strokes* was to doubt received wisdom. I have found that advice to be good, for several reasons.

First, most people don't really get probability; that's why casinos work.  When something is classified as "very unlikely," it is important that the possibility still obtains: "very unlikely" is NOT "impossible." Recovery is possible.

Second, doctors don't know everything about the brain, although they are usually in authoritative positions. As much as we would like to get answers about our brain damage, and as much as we expect doctors to have those answers, they don't. I'm not saying that they're not experts, but research into the fundamentals of the brain is still happening. They don't have all the answers; nobody does.

Third, the physical brain and the insubstantial mind are related. They are not separate nor separable things. Some brain damage causes changes in personally, beyond the behavioral changes that are an inevitable consequence of having brain damage.

Fourth, recovery takes a long damn time. A lot happens that doctors never see, and rarely perceive. They often have too many patients, and are not geared to detect the slow, steady improvements that are a feature of brain recovery. By and large, our changes are not going to appear in blood, urine or even spinal fluid samples. A specialist might see you once in the first six months and never see the small daily improvements, or the hard work that goes with them.

Thus far, it is not possible to deny anything I've said. That truth should be enough for anyone. I'll speculate: The thought that recovery is possible is necessary, but not sufficient, for recovery to occur.

When we do not think recovery is possible, it is unlikely to occur. The brain evolved for efficiency: use as little energy as possible to perform tasks. Don't train both hands to be deft, stick with a dominant side, for example. This is antithetical to recovery** which requires that we do things poorly again, clumsily , slowly and awkwardly to learn how to do them competently and even well once more. When we don't think there's any point to doing things the hard way, then we don't and an opportunity for recovery, instead becomes further reinforcement for compensation. The thought that recovery is possible is necessary.

It is not enough, though, just to sit on your tush and think "I can recover!" to yourself. You have to do something about it. If you have brain damage, somebody, somewhere has said "use it or lose it" to you***. Recovery goes further than that, it requires that you force yourself to do things the difficult way, it is often tedious, and it mostly sucks. The alternative, inaction and stagnation, is worse. I'm lucky: the damage I have is not cognitive. I can fix physical things comparatively simply. I must do the work, though.  The thought that recovery is possible is not sufficient.

Medical professionals use phrases like 'very unlikely' with experience, compassion and precision. It was unlikely. Believe that very unlikely means impossible, and it will stay unlikely. I dare you, instead to give them the lie, be the exception, and change the statistics, because recovery is possible.

In an upcoming post, I'll give you more personal anecdotal evidence of recovery. It surprised me, three years on.

* By Nigel, who had had his stroke six years before. He'd left in-patient rehab (and been written off by insurance, therefore) able only to wriggle the toes of his afflicted side. He walked into my hospital room.

** Although it is consistent with compensation, the side of rehabilitation I largely reject.

*** If they haven't yet, they will.