The Journal of Parapsychology October 2004
E and Me
by mark kirschling, m.d.
Life is unpredictable, even for those of us whose job it is to predict it. Doctors, such as myself, observe symptoms and, from those harbingers, predict what will come next. We see glimpses of our patients’ futures. We are, however, lousy fortune-tellers because no matter how far ahead we may try to look, we are inevitably thwarted by the unpredictability of life and its many forms. We are never granted more than glimpses.
Before I began this study, I predicted that I would publish in The New England Journal of Medicine a paper full of test results and established diagnoses. Clearly, I failed to predict correctly. I do not intend this as an insult to the readers and contributors of this journal, for which I have more respect than I could have imagined, but because my failure is so integral to the conclusion of the study itself.
I believe I predicted incorrectly because I imposed on those glimpses available to me the only type of future that I could imagine. Or, rather, I imposed on them the only type of future that I, in my chosen profession, had been trained to accept.
I first became acquainted with my subject, E, in October of 2002. My longtime associate, Dr. Smith Wainscott, told me of a female patient who had been admitted to Rhode Island Hospital an unusual number of times over the past thirteen months. He had been her attending doctor for many of these admissions, and her case had become a source of fascination for him.
“I’ve never seen a short-term medical history like this patient’s,” Dr. Wainscott told me. “Or even a long-term history. It’s not only that she’s had such exotic diseases—which, in fact, she’s had. But it’s that she’s had so many, both ordinary and extraordinary.”
Wainscott and I walked the downtown streets, discussing this mysterious E. Downtown Providence is a cityscape with a strange aesthetic allure for a doctor. Because the skyscrapers are few, and in most other cities wouldn’t even be referred to as skyscrapers, it’s an environment that can lead a man to believe that he might accomplish anything. He’s never dwarfed, as he might be in other cities. On that night in particular, the scale of the buildings made me feel as if I held my own against my surroundings, which, in turn, made me feel as if I could do the same against this complicated E. I asked Wainscott to tell me everything he could remember about her.
Wainscott began to list the girl’s diseases, counting them off on his fingers; when he ran out of fresh fingers, he folded them back into his palm and recycled.
I had been invited to teach at the Brown University School of Medicine because of the pain research I had done in Chicago. My studies had become well known, and the university, in need of a specialist in the field, offered me so many inducements I couldn’t refuse. When Wainscott finally arrived at E’s lingering fibromyalgia, a diffuse, physical pain that many experts believe to be psychosomatic, my mind was swimming with images of her.
I knew that I wanted to meet E, but that I couldn’t compromise Wainscott’s ethics. I couldn’t show up on her doorstep, introduce myself by saying that my doctor friend had been discussing her multiple illnesses with me, and then ask if I could check her blood pressure. I asked Wainscott, “Do you know how I might run across this E?” I was hoping he’d invite me to observe during one of her inevitable future visits to the hospital.
To my surprise, Wainscott told me, “You can just go to the Brown infirmary. She’s living there.” “She’s staying there?” I asked.
“She’s living there,” he reiterated. “Her illnesses have piggybacked one upon another, so that nearly every time she’s recuperated, she’s been knocked down by something else. I wasn’t exaggerating, Kirschling.”
I found this incredible, and wanted to know why the girl hadn’t been sent home. If she was so ill, why hadn’t the school put her on leave?
“If you pay your full tuition and don’t make too much noise, it looks as though they let you stay,” Wainscott said, smiling.
Later I found out that this wasn’t wholly true. Even though E’s bills were covered, the administration had been viewing her with an uneasy eye since September. When she briefly returned to a semblance of health in the spring of her freshman year, the registrar had allowed her to enroll for her fall semester sophomore year, believing that she would be able to resume a normal student life. By the end of May, however, E was back in the infirmary, and through the bureaucratic grapevine, I found out that a few meetings had been called among the deans in an attempt to decide what to do with her. Her professors accommodated her illnesses by delivering assignments to the infirmary, administering exams via the nurse practitioners, and holding monthly bedside “office hours.” I spoke to one professor under the promise of confidentiality, and he shared with me that “E probably attended class just as often as at least eighty percent of the kids in my lecture. That is, not at all.”
The university, however, began to feel it necessary to draw a line that fall while avoiding any sort of discrimination lawsuits. The powers that be were beginning to fear that E would spend another semester, perhaps even another year, inside the infirmary, and wondered how they could defend themselves against the question of whether or not she had had an actual college experience. Among the deans there was reported discomfort surrounding the conditions of her being awarded a diploma, and there was talk about asking her to redo the in-class credits that she had missed as a result of her extended stay in the infirmary.
Luckily, I discovered E through Wainscott at exactly this time.
A week later, I stood in front of Andrews House, otherwise known as Brown University’s Health Services. The building is a red brick classical revival with white pillars framing the entryway. It still looks like the private residence that it was at the end of the nineteenth century. There is nothing clinical about the exterior of the building; as a matter of fact, there is very little that is clinical about the ground floor of the interior, either.
I had been inside Health Services before to visit associates and to retrieve records, but had never looked at the environment through the eyes of someone who might, in this day and age, consider it her residence. Whereas previously my impression of the ground floor had been that it was simply open and inviting, when I set foot in the building that day, I suddenly envisioned it as the parlor that it must have been a hundred or so years ago. I began to interpret things as E might.
On the left side of the floor were chairs and coffee tables, arranged to encourage conversation. From what I’ve since observed during my time in the building, patients instead tend to be silent, reading magazines and filling out their forms. On the day of my initial meeting with E, a student was having such a bad coughing fit that he exiled himself at the northern windows.
I approached the back stairwell, where a sign directed visitors upstairs and instructed them to follow the lines of colored tape on the floor. The green line led to the pharmacy, the blue line to the waiting room on the second floor, and the yellow line to the lab.
I chose arbitrarily to follow the green tape because there was no colo...