Careless Words

I have an amazing friend.  After years of struggling with alcohol, she’s managed through a great deal of pain and endurance, and a little help from AA, to stay off the booze for 4 years.  She pointed this out to her GP recently.  His response? “Good .  Now you need to lose some weight.”

Another friend tells a tale of talking to a doctor about fibroids.  They discussed whether it could affect her fertility.  On finding out she was 35, the doctor said, “Well, what have you been waiting for? You need to get on with it.” She promptly burst into tears.

I can tell a couple of stories too.  The time a midwife gave me an injection just before I was due to have a D and C to remove my miscarried baby.  ‘Injection done.  That’s the worst over with.” Really?  The time a doctor berated me for putting on weight before realising I’d been on a large dose of steroids for six months.  The time a consultant who’d never met me before insisted I was facing the rest of my life on dialysis.  He was wrong.

Everyone can put their foot in it now and then.  I’ve dropped some right clangers in my time.  But I think working with patients requires an extra effort in choosing the words you use.

I have another story of a junior doctor, who came across me in tears after I’d received bad news.  “Fiona,” he said.  “This time will pass.”  He was right, and like the ill chosen words above,  those 4 words he uttered have stuck with me and helped me through the darkest of times.

Dear NHS staff.  Us patients are really vulnerable.  We’re often at one of the most difficult points in our lives.  Our conversations with you are about intensely personal subjects.   We’ve waited for hours for the doctors round on the ward.  Or months for the outpatient appointment.  You are the person who we think can cure us.  Or who we trust to care for us when we can’t care for ourselves.  We hang on your every word and analyse them after you’ve gone.

Careless words might not cost lives, but they can cost peace of mind.   And a loss of confidence in those who are treating us.   But well chosen words can bring hope too.  Remember that when you talk to us , and remember that your words will stay with us long, long after you’ve moved onto the next patient.