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Sometimes what you say is stronger than any treatment or medications you may prescribe.
“Someone ought to start leveling with you,” said Dr. G, the physician on call in the neonatal intensive care unit. She was speaking to my wife.
Pointing to the two-week-old, two-pound, 12-ounce baby lying motionless in an incubator, she added, “Life’s not going to be a bowl of cherries for this baby. You better start learning to deal with it.”
The disclosure stunned my wife.
We learned of my wife’s pregnancy in her fourth month. Twins were discovered in month five. Then a few weeks later, a second sonogram led to the suggestion that “Baby B” had some type of malady. We were relatively clueless but scared.
When my wife was in her 29th week of pregnancy and developed pre-eclampsia, her OB/GYN recommended an immediate C-section. Two baby boys were delivered and immediately put on oxygen in the NICU. The first two weeks of life were a struggle. But despite that, we were growing increasingly hopeful.
Until Dr. G spoke with my wife.
Like many patients you probably know, we refused to believe what Dr. G had told us. Baby B, now Robert, was small; every other day seemed to bring another medical challenge. But he also seemed determined to thrive, overcoming almost everything nature threw at him.
At our insistence, Robert was assigned another physician. That’s when we met Dr. H. A pediatric neurologist, Dr. H spent a good hour examining Robert, holding him, massaging his small arms and legs, and evaluating his muscle tone through the power of touch before agreeing to see us at the hospital.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” he said. On what do you base your prognosis, we asked?
“I looked at the patient,” he answered.
Dr. H was big on looking at and examining the patient, not just the medical labs and reports - the stuff Dr. G had focused on exclusively.
Hospitalizations and surgeries followed. Dr. H remained positive throughout, as did Robert’s development.
“Look, he may walk later than his twin brother; maybe he won’t be great at baseball or running. But he’s going to be fine.” Dr. H was right. He did start walking and talking later than his twin brother.
But despite Robert’s progress, Dr. G’s words had made an indelible impression on us. They were seared on our brains. Anytime Robert took a step backward, her words recurred like a bad dream and haunted us.
Dr. H encouraged us: “Look, there’s nothing I can do to erase what you were told. Don’t let those words hold Robert back.”
Eighteen years later, it is clear that Dr. G was right. Life wasn’t a bowl of cherries for Robert. Chronic medical conditions slowed his development.
But Dr. H was also right. Over time, with the help of a superb group of committed physicians, counselors, teachers, family, friends, and peers, he prevailed. Most important, in spite of - or maybe because of - the challenges he faced early in life, he was drawn to the world of music. In grade school, he learned to play the piano. In secondary school, the cello. And more recently, he has learned to compose music. This fall he’ll be a freshman at a world-renowned musical conservatory.
Dr. G’s words are still with us. But Dr. H’s unfailing optimism and support helped us overcome them.
In a world where we all occasionally feel helpless, incapable of doing anything as if restrained by a straightjacket, it’s important to remember just how powerful we can be. Beyond the tremendous medical care that you can provide, your words can make all the difference in the lives of the patients you see each day.
Ken Karpay is the publisher of Physicians Practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Physicians Practice.