Donald, no not THAT one

As part of last year’s Health Activists Writer’s Challenge we were asked to find a “quotation that inspires you”.

The quotation I chose is probably not an obvious one for a health blog. You might have been expecting me to have trawled through the “inspirational” websites to find some relevant, life affirming words. I hope you’re not disappointed. I actually used this quote….

Here goes. Over to that well known US philosopher, Donald Rumsfeld. It’s the quote he was ridiculed for it at the time, unfairly in my opinion, as it makes perfect sense. In case you don’t remember what he said :

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Bear with me, it will become clear. To illustrate the point I’m using one of my favourite subjects – bile acid malabsorption (BAM). Maybe “favourite” isn’t the right description, make that “a subject I have felt the need to write about several times before”. There’s barely a day goes by when I don’t see a comment, on one of the IBD or BAM forums, from someone who has just been diagnosed with BAM and many times the post goes on to say that their doctor had never heard of the condition before. That’s the first hurdle to overcome.

Walk up to St.Thomas' from Waterloo
St.Thomas’ Hospital, Westminster

I am a fellow sufferer as a result of losing my terminal ileum. (I had an ileostomy back in October 2010). Before the operation I was offered the chance to take part in an Enhanced Recovery Scheme at one of the top London hospitals. Part of the ethos behind this regime is to fully inform the patient of what will happen at all stages of the process – pre-op, during the hospital stay and beyond. Was I told about BAM before the operation? I’d have to answer “maybe” and this brings us to the point of this post. Let me explain….

I was told that after the operation absorption of vitamins and salts would be much reduced due to lack of a terminal ileum. The surgeon repeated this message on his ward round post-op. If someone told you that your body wouldn’t absorb salt properly what would you take that to mean? I took it at face value, I would need to up my intake of salt to compensate and take supplemental vitamins. I didn’t see the need to question the statement as it seemed very clear.

It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with BAM (4 years after the ileostomy) that I found it has an alternative name “Bile SALT Malabsorption”. Suddenly the comment about not absorbing “salt” took on another meaning. You can see the problem.

This is where Donald Rumsfeld comes in. I heard what the Enhanced Recovery Nurse and the surgeon told me. I understood what the words meant – to me. I didn’t know that I didn’t understand what the words meant to them. From their point of view – they were using their everyday, medical terms to describe a potential problem to a patient.

From this experience I have learnt that you must always question what you are being told and do your best to get the doctor or consultant to explain, in simple terms or non-medical terms, exactly what they mean and what they perceive the implications to be.

I keep coming back to those particular words in the quote “there are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Try repeating them to yourself as you enter the consulting room…..