During a recent office visit an older women recited to me what I had said to her over a decade ago on the day she came to the hospital. The detail of her memory gave me pause.
I could not remember the scenario but she said that my words had become part of her family’s stories. That is a big deal.
And I hear this often. Illness induces a heightened sense of being. The ill and their families remember a lot about their caregivers, especially our words.
Think about your own encounters when you have been ill enough to be in a hospital. I surely remember the interactions–both the good and the not-so-good.
The daunting thing about these encounters, from our POV, is that we see illness, suffering and even death every day. It’s normal for us.
But it’s not normal to be sick. You feel vulnerable. The unknown creates fear. While health can be defined by the state of not thinking about it, when you are sick, you can think of little else.
So these are a high-stakes encounters. No matter the letters after one’s name (RN, APRN, PA, MD), the professional caregiver at the bedside can help or harm simply with our words.
I’ve seen the good and the bad. One of my now-retired partners earned fame for his upbeat caring attitude. When he left the room of even the sickest person, he made it clear that we would help them. He didn’t say we would cure, or relieve all their pain; he said we would help. He meant it.
Then there are the bad encounters. Poorly chosen words can make illness much worse, most often by enhancing fear or despair.Â “We have nothing else to do for you,” is a common flub. Never say that!
Another challenge of using the spoken word–unlike the written word–is that there is no delete button. Once said, words cannot be unheard.Â The person with the illness doesn’t know that we may be busy, or worried about our own children, or mad about administrative nonsense. They don’t know that this may be the 5000th time we have discussed their health problem.
Some of my colleagues have said that being a doctor is nothing special. It’s a job, a way to earn a living. Don’t make it romantic, goes the thinking.
I get that. Doctors can be overly dramatic about their awesomeness.
But.Â Doesn’t the fact that our words have the power to influence people’s memories make this more than a job?
I’m not perfect. I’ve had plenty of regrettable utterances, but I take solace in knowing that the practice of medicine still requires our presence as fellow caring humans.
We can master procedures, remember facts, and gain the ability to know what to recommend within seconds of seeing a patient. These are the easy parts of medical practice.
Crafting our presence and our words, this is the hard part. That it is this way is cool.