1 March 2023

Do you have a quotation that inspires you? The one I would choose is probably not an obvious choice 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.

Here goes. Over to that well-known US philosopher, the late Donald Rumsfeld. It’s the quote he was ridiculed for 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, I hope it will become clear. To illustrate the point I’m using a subject I feel particularly strongly about – bile acid malabsorption (BAM). As someone very actively engaged in bowel issues, I’ve read many comments from patients who have recently been diagnosed with BAM and many times they go on to say that their doctor had never heard of the condition before. That’s the first hurdle to overcome.

If you have been diagnosed with BAM you’ll know that it causes chronic diarrhoea. Bile acid is usually recirculated to the gallbladder via the far end of the small intestine. If that area is damaged or compromised the bile acid passes directly into the colon triggering the secretion of extra water, leading to looser stools. It can be a very debilitating condition.

I am a fellow sufferer as a result of losing my terminal ileum. (I had an ileostomy back in October 2010. Full story in my free to download book!). 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 expecting my digestive system to function normally after the surgery. The Enhanced Recovery Nurse and the surgeon had told me that absorption of vitamins and salts would be much reduced as I would no longer have a terminal ileum. If someone told you that your body wouldn’t absorb salts properly what would you take that to mean? I took it at face value, I would need to up my intake of salt (sodium chloride) to compensate and take supplemental vitamins. I didn’t see the need to question the statement as it seemed very clear. Maybe I should have been more curious as I left hospital with a long term prescription for 12 Imodium capsules per day.

In fact it took four years before I underwent a SeHCAT scan and was diagnosed with severe BAM. It was then that I discovered 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; but didn’t appreciate what the words meant to them. From their point of view – they were using their everyday, medical terms to describe a likely problem to a patient.

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

I keep coming back to those particular words from the quote “there are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Try repeating them to yourself as you enter the consulting room, either side of the desk.