How powerful a few words can be in the exam room

Recently, I was reminded of the power of wellness. From the other side. And it came wrapped up in sound. Five words, to be precise.

I was instantly reminded how powerful a few words can be in the exam room.

We all want to feel wellness. The freeing kind, as in the way you feel when towered over by big objects. You know what I mean, the wide open wellness you feel in the presence of grand nature. Mountains, canyons, 342 degree skies. Those spaces that decipher size and scope and are without haunts. It’s the hands to the sky, wind in your hair, rocks underneath, clock-less type wellness. Liberty from suffering, time to breath, acheless, carefree days, type wellness. We all need and want these days. Particularly after recovering from illness.

Sometimes, this sense of wellness is granted from the absence of things. Sometimes, the presence. Fortunately for me, sometimes this sense arrives within the confines of an exam room.

What doctors say can remain with us. The words spoken in an exam room linger and can pop up in life unexpectedly again and again. Aren’t there things a doctor has said to you that remain? I have those…We physicians need to remember to proclaim precisely what we see. Wellness, like illness, should be detailed. The absence of illness is also the presence of health and wellness and we must rejoice it. It’s not just routine.

My mom finished her chemotherapy this summer (think: illness). She’s slowly regaining her speed and she’s doing great, gradually returning to herself while her health prevails. While her health has been a huge relief for me, I can’t imagine how she must feel unsuspended from illnesses’ grasp. Like a coming to the surface of the water after swimming the length of the pool, she must feel the relief of easy breathing. To me at least, the air feels so good entering in. Slippery in the new simplicity.

Seeing her oncologist this week reminded me how much my mom’s life has been defined by illness this last year(s). It took the glass shattering (words in the exam room) for me to see it. It went like this: after the blood draw, the waiting, the weighing, and the measuring, we sat in the room #11. The oncologist joined us. When he came in, he sat on the stool where he always does. Put his hands on the keyboard like he always does. Planted his feet in just the same way as his laces lay as they always do. But then he did something he’s never done before. He looked at my mom and he said,

“You’re the picture of health.”

And poof, suddenly the walls crashed around us, the big mountains became visible, a wide open sky came shimmering in. Wellness blew about, enveloping my mom.  She smiled and shifted in her seat. She was polite, restricted, and patient-like. But as we left, she hopped up and bounded through the hall and around the corner. Five words from her doctor she’d never heard before.

These are words that need to be spoken.

Congratulations, Mom. And thank you, Dr P, for reminding me how important these 5 words can be.

Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician who blogs at Seattle Mama Doc.

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  • http://briarcroft.wordpress.com Emily Gibson

    Wendy, such a terrific reminder to us physicians who forget that good news should be spoken aloud and celebrated together.

  • http://natickpediatrics.net Rob Lindeman

    342 degree skies?

  • http://seattlemamadoc.seattlechildrens.org Wendy Sue Swanson, MD

    Well, it could have been 360, but often there is something in the landscape obscuring a piece of the sky. That’s all I meant. Maybe too much poetry…

  • just a patient

    I am also a cancer patient/survivor. I didn’t receive such promising words as your mother, but the words “you’re doing better than expected” was good enough for me and gave me hope. Patients do hang onto every word spoken in the doctor’s office.

  • http://www.tvyourhealthcare.org Ellen Kagan

    Hi, Wendy, I love your column about the necessary words to say to a patient – especially when they are happy words. I have been long active in health reform – I had a tv and radio show called Your Health Care:Choice or Chance? – and am a cancer survivor of 6 1/2 years. I had great doctors during that period and for other things, but I also encountered a Twilight Zonish oncologist – and this at a Harvard-teaching hospital – who later misdiagnosed me with cancer. She did not even do it herself, but had her nurse practitioner call me at home to tell me that I was dying. It is a horror story and I have included it in my book, ELLEN IN MEDICALAND:TRUE STORIES OF HOW I FELL DOWN MEDICINE’S BLACK HOLE AND STILL LIVED AFTER ALL, which is on Kindle. Of course, I fired her, but it is truly unbelievable how an oncologist can be so cruel. Of course, she is still practicing and never even apologized!

  • T.McGraw.D.O.


    “You are most probably cured,” Five words told to me ap-proximately five years ago after Dx of Ca ten years ago. Good feeling. Might add these words to the words your Mom received. Keep Smiling,T.McG.

  • http://seattlemamadoc.seattlechildrens.org Wendy Sue Swanson, MD

    She didn’t get those words, unfortunately. But we do have a window of remission. And I spend most of my emotional energy in that space for now. Thanks for these comments.

  • Joy

    Twenty-three year survivor. My oncologist at MSK in NYC said, “I think that you will live long enough to die of something else.”. So far, so good!

  • ljpmt

    I struggled to stop smoking cigarettes for many years. I stopped and started repeatedly and was convinced I just couldn’t quit for good. At one of my doctor’s visits, when I was at the point of completely giving up on the idea of ever being able to quit, my doctor looked me directly in the eyes, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I believe in you.” That was the day I quit smoking and it’s been 18 years since then.

  • Finn

    I had a cancer with an 80% recurrence rate after “successful” chemo. After treatment my oncologist said “You’re done.” It was in a social situation, not the examining room, so I understood that it was not an actual prognosis (which she’d already given me), but nevertheless it was very heartening to hear that she was so optimistic.