Our Lives

Our Lives: Words as therapeutic as any treatment

CorrespondentFebruary 1, 2014 

ELIZABETHDREESEN.AL.050213.JEL

Elizabeth Dreesen.

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

Picking doctors for your parents is a delicate business, especially when you’re a doctor yourself. You want to please your parents, to find them a smart and caring doctor. Being the doctor to the parents of doctors is not always a picnic. Like everybody’s parents, doctors’ parents develop difficult medical problems, and when that happens, their doctor-children – colleagues that you once liked – can be transformed overnight into cranky, meddlesome pests.

I was thinking about all this when I asked C to be my mother’s lung doctor. I was apologetic as I made the request. “My Mom’s nice,” I reassured her. “And I’ll try not to become a psycho.”

C agreed, for which I was grateful. I knew she would take good care of my mom. But as things have evolved, I’ve gotten more out of C than just Mom’s care. C has also given me a lesson in doctoring, in what matters to patients as they get sicker.

Let me show you what I mean.

Mom’s emphysema is worsening. Dressing consumes more than half of her morning because she stops so often to catch her breath. At the gym she finds herself gasping after just a minute or two on a slow treadmill. Even eating can be exhausting if it’s a big meal on a bad day.

So recently Mom and Dad and I drove in to see C. I brought my scratchpad so I could take notes and report back to my sister.

C’s exam room was cramped. The padded table filled half the floor space, and Mom couldn’t climb up on it. Instead she sat in her wheelchair, with her oxygen on the floor beside her. Dad sat next to her in a chair made for someone smaller. I folded myself onto a padded bench crammed in behind Mom’s wheelchair. We were a quiet little huddle until C arrived.

C perched herself on a rolling stool and leaned on the exam table. “How are you?” she asked, looking at my mom.

“I’m failing,” Mom announced, and she described her deterioration.

When she finished, we all sat for a minute. Mom straightened the oxygen tubing draped across her chest. Dad rearranged the paperwork lying in his lap. I looked at C and wondered how she would respond to my mother’s suffering.

C leaned in towards Mom.

“You aren’t failing,” C said gently with an emphasis on “You.” “It’s your lungs that are failing.” She paused. “This isn’t a limitation of your muscles, or a failure of will. It’s because of your lungs.”

Once again, nobody said anything.

I let C’s words slowly sink in. She had clearly gleaned something profound about my mother. Maybe she’d known it for years or maybe she’d heard then in my mother’s voice and word choice. However C knew it, what she’d learned was simply this: that there’s a part of my mother who views her illness as a personal failure.

I realized how insightful this was. My mother’s fierce independence, her unwillingness to hire help, and her punishing gym routine are all part of her work ethic, her belief that she should be able to overcome this, to train like an athlete to extract every bit of oxygen from her broken lungs.

C was perceptive to see this, and taking time to try to correct Mom was both generous and kind. In truth, it was as therapeutic as anything else she could have done. She wanted my mother to let herself off the hook.

“You’re not failing. It’s your lungs.”

I starting scribbling her words on my notepad, so I could pass them on to my sister. I was still transcribing when my Mom reached over and patted Dr. C’s hand. “I remember what you were wearing the first time I met you,” Mom said. “It was a short jacket with big buttons.” Mom smiled as she remembered. “You looked wonderful.”

It may sound like a non sequitur. My mom’s prone to them. My mother is not, however, prone to idle compliments, and what she was really saying to C as she revealed this memory was simply “thank you.” Mom was telling C how special she was, so special that my mom keeps remembering the moment they met. Mom was grateful to C for listening to her, for taking the time to know her and to correct Mom’s mistake.

Some other stuff happened at the appointment, but I didn’t record it. The only thing on my notepad is the quote from C. What lingers in my head is how moved my mother was by being heard, by having her words parsed and interpreted and then ever so gently corrected. The experience of being known was comforting to Mom, and it was comforting and inspiring me to see it happen before my very eyes.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” C asked as we filed out of the office.

“Hand me a hanky,” I said, pointing to a box of tissues. “You’re a good doctor and you made me cry.”

Dreesen: elizabethdreesen@gmail.com

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