By SAMYUKTA MULLANGI MD, MBA, DANIEL W. BERLAND MD, and SUSAN DORR GOOLD MD, MHSA, MA
Jenny, a woman in her twenties with morbid obesity (not her real name), had already been through multiple visits with specialists, primary care physicians (PCPs), and the emergency department (ED) for unexplained abdominal pain. A plethora of tests could not explain her suffering. Monthly visits with a consistent primary care physician also had little impact on her ED visits or her pain. Some clinicians had broached the diagnosis of functional abdominal pain related to her central adiposity, and recommended weight loss. This suggestion inevitably led her to become defensive and angry.
Though our standard screen for safety at home had been completed long ago, I wanted to probe further, knowing that many patients with obesity, chronic pain and other chronic conditions have suffered an adverse childhood – or adulthood – experience (ACE). Yet, I hesitated. Would a busy primary care setting offer enough latitude for me to ask about a history of trauma when it can occur in so many forms, in so many ways and at different times of life? Furthermore, suppose she did report a history of trauma or adverse experience. What then? Would I be able to help her?
Nonetheless, I began: “Jenny, many patients with symptoms like yours have been abused, either emotionally, physically, or sexually, or neglected in their past. Sometimes they have suffered loss of a loved one, or experienced or witnessed violence. Has anything like this ever happened to you?”
This yielded our first breakthrough. Yes, she had experienced neglect, with parents who were separated for much of her childhood, and then later divorced. She had seen her father physically abuse her mother. With little parental oversight, she had engaged in drug and alcohol use throughout her teenage years. But, she wanted to be sure we understood that this was all behind her. She had gotten an education, was in a committed relationship, and had a stable job as a teacher. That part of her life was thankfully now closed.