A model of Van Gogh’s severed ear: a routine ear operation caused years of head pain for one patient. Photo: Getty
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The man with his head in an invisible vice – and the puzzle that took a decade to solve

Dr Phil Whitaker’s Health Matters column. 

David was a patient during my earliest years in general practice: an otherwise fit man in his early sixties who needed an operation on his ear. The procedure went without a hitch but afterwards David noticed that he was markedly off-balance and he developed dreadful headaches. His description stuck in my mind: he said it was as if one side of his skull was being “squeezed and crushed in a vice”. He illustrated this with his hands, clamping and pressing them against his scalp as he tried to explain.

Initially, I hoped it was something that would settle spontaneously: side effects of the general anaesthetic or the painkillers, perhaps, or some deep bruising that would take a while to resolve. After a few weeks without improvement, I organised blood tests and examined everything my training suggested might be relevant. I drew a blank.

My ear, nose and throat (ENT) colleagues were similarly perplexed when he attended his six-week follow-up appointment. The surgery had been successful, they confirmed, and everything was well healed. They were at a loss to explain his new symptoms.

So began a tortuous process. The ENT surgeons approached the problem from every angle they could: head scan, X-rays, more blood tests, specialised tests of balance. Each flurry of activity was interspersed with interminable periods of waiting for the next outpatient review. Eventually, after many months, the verdict was delivered: they could find nothing wrong and could only suggest I refer David to a consultant neurologist. 

A year later, David was no further forward. He continued to complain bitterly of the grinding headaches and the disequilibrium. The neurologist and an ENT second opinion had failed to produce a diagnosis. As so often with “medically unexplained physical symptoms”, the spotlight began to shine on the psychosocial sphere – were these symptoms an expression of emotional turmoil?

David was emphatic: he had emotional turmoil, all right, but that was because the bloody operation had left him in pain and no one seemed to have the first idea how to put him right. His relationship with the medical profession reached rock bottom and though I tried to support him as best I could, I began to dread seeing his name on my appointment list, so impotent did his case make me feel and so angry had he become.

Eventually, I moved to another part of the country, leaving my first practice and David’s insoluble symptoms behind. A decade later, I went in for dental surgery under general anaesthetic. Shortly after getting home, I began to feel giddy and off-balance and I developed headaches that felt as though one side of my skull was being crushed in a vice. I tried various measures but nothing helped. Memories of David inevitably came back to me.

In the intervening years, I had seen a number of perplexing musculoskeletal problems respond to chiropractic treatment where conventional medicine had reached a dead end. I went to discuss my situation with an experienced chiropractor and he knew immediately what had happened: the surgeon, in manoeuvring my head to get access to the back of my mouth while I was under the anaesthetic, had unwittingly deranged the alignment of the bones at the top of my neck. With a few manipulations, my debilitating symptoms melted away.

Since learning this lesson, I have seen several similar cases in which patients can date the onset of back pain or headaches and dizziness to receiving a general anaesthetic. Most doctors are mystified because there is nothing in medical training that teaches us that this kind of thing can happen. To a chiropractor, however, it’s unsurprising. If you haul insensate bodies from trolleys on to operating tables – if you twist heads this way and that while the protective neck muscles are paralysed by anaesthetic – you will very likely put vertebrae out of kilter.

Medicine is a lifelong education. The training that we get in our early years is only a starter guide. Life experiences (our own and those of family and friends), the patients we encounter and the stories we hear continue to expand and refine our understanding of the myriad ways human beings work and don’t work. As well as learning lessons from chiropractors, I have also seen startling results with homoeopathy, acupuncture and psychotherapy. Yet these kinds of approaches are frequently derided by conventional doctors, who reject them because they can’t be understood in our current scientific terms.

If there is one thing that can be said with confidence about our understanding of the human organism today, it is that, like all bodies of scientific knowledge, it will be shown to be woefully inadequate over the next 50 years. The provisionality and partiality of our knowledge should serve to keep our minds open to other ways of thinking.

I can now direct patients with anaesthetic-related back or neck injuries to someone who can help them. My regret is that I didn’t have this understanding when David needed help. I can still see him, clamping and pressing his hands to his scalp, trying desperately to communicate what he was going through but being met with the incomprehension and impotence of his physicians. That has been one of the defining lessons of my career and I try to remember it whenever a patient presents puzzling problems that defy a conventional diagnostic approach. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.