I wish doctors would learn how to communicate better with patients and their families

I just spent the last two days at a hospital, not as a patient but as a family member. I tagged along to support my mother who needed to submit to a series of tests, some of which required anesthesia.

At the end of the first day the doctors and nurses had become so used to my presence, that they completely ignored me. I’d practically become part of the furniture. I guess that’s why I was able to overhear a conversation between a doctor and one patient’s family.

A mother and her son had come to visit their son/brother and the man’s doctor was telling them how poorly his patient was. His organs - heart, liver, kidneys - were failing and there was some rare problem with the way this man’s body was processing protein; the doctors at the hospital weren’t really sure why this man’s organs were failing. I can’t describe that patient’s medical situation any better and there’s really no need to, because I heard the doctor’s message loud and clear: his patient was dying, and he would die soon. He probably wouldn’t live through the night.

Yet the doctor never used the word “death”, he just kept talking about organ failure, and how serious the situation was. It became obvious to me that the patient’s mother and son did not understand what the doctor was trying to tell them. “Do you understand how sick he is?” asked the doctor over and over, and they answered “yes, we do.” And no, they didn’t understand at all.

I was conflicted about what I should do. Tell them that I’d overheard a confidential conversation? That I thought their loved one was dying? What if I was wrong? Before I was able to make up my mind, they were gone.

The patient died the next morning, and when his mother and son came to the hospital, they were in total shock and the mother was crying: “I didn’t know he was that sick.” I feel very conflicted about this man’s death. I wish I had spoken up, because then the patient’s family would have had a chance to say their good-byes.

I’m also furious at the patient’s mother and brother, who kept telling the doctor that their son/brother was always sick and feeling poorly. They described him as someone who “played sick,” who pretended to feel worse than he was, and they were clearly annoyed that he was sick yet again. They just didn’t want to know the truth. I can only imagine what it must feel like to be chronically ill and not have the support of one’s family. How lonely the man must have felt, struggling with his various illnesses - dying from a rare disease - while his family thought he was just being difficult.

I am also angry with the doctor who didn’t have the courage to tell his patient’s family that the man was dying. He hid behind medical terms instead of using a very simple word that those people would have understood: death.

I really struggle to understand why the doctor didn’t mention the possibility of (imminent) death during the conversation with his patient’s family. People get sick, and doctors can’t always save them. That’s how it is. So why is it so difficult to tell patients or their families the truth? As patients (and family members) we need information more than anything else, and we need to be told in words that we can understand. We also need to be told clearly, even when we don’t want to hear what the doctors have to say. Denial is simply not an option when someone is dying, not for the patient’s family and certainly not for his doctors. “Organ failure” just isn’t good enough when someone’s life is slipping away.

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