I was explaining to my community college English class what the term medical humanities means when one of the student’s hands shot up. She told the story of a friend of hers whose baby had just had surgery to repair a cleft palate. The surgeon’s first words to the parents after the operation were the issue. He said, “The surgery was successful, but you’re not going to like what you see.” The parents were horrified. You’re not going to like what you see.
This type of story is why I understand that there’s still so much work to do in the field of medicine. Communication is key. Here’s a super-skilled surgeon with a decade of training and tons of experience– the operation was successful —who terrified already frightened parents. One might say, well, the parents can handle it; after all, the operation went well. But why should anyone have to “handle” it? Parents of infants who’ve had surgery need a lot support and deserve clear and thoughtful communication.
Consider this, too. The surgeon’s words undercut his own success. Instead of feeling honored by the parents, he receives shock and anger. Wouldn’t he want to invite a positive interaction for all? Wouldn’t he want his clients to feel satisfied? I’m sure he wants to feel valued and to be thanked wholeheartedly for his great work.
The student who shared this story with the class was quite passionate about the wrongness of the surgeon’s words. Apparently, the parents were devastated by them. I asked her what words the surgeon might have said that would have brought a better outcome. I can’t recall her answer exactly, but they went something like this: “The surgery went really well. It will take a while for her to recover for she’s been through a lot, but she will heal beautifully, you will see.”
Of course, not all doctors communicate badly, but many do. What in their training could help? Exposure to medical humanities. Bringing humanism into the equation and compassion into the discussion. Studying literature, for example, that helps professionals access their own vulnerability and confusion. Reading stories that reveal our shared humanity. When the hearts, heads, hands, and mouths of doctors work in synche, the outcome will be powerful. Until then, the wounding continues.