Daniel Menaker

Patience for Patients

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Recently, and sadly, I’ve had a lot of conversations with doctors and nurses about some ailing relatives, and since almost everyone has to go through these difficult times, it seemed a good idea to try to formulate some guidelines for communicating with health-care workers most effectively and compassionately.

1. If you are the patient and have your wits about you, don’t try too hard to be funny and entertaining with doctors, nurses, and nurses’ aides. A little humor is always helpful, but the people who are trying to help you are extremely busy and, sadly, don’t have large amounts of time for banter.  It’s understandable that you might want to try to assert your personality and be entertaining when you are basically forced into a passive role, but the way to really show maturity under these hard circumstances is to accept your status as a patient and act accordingly.

2. On the other hand, if you can somehow give medical personnel a reason to care about you at least a little, you stand a better chance of getting the best treatment. If you indicate, briefly, an interest in who the people are who are giving you an injection or examining you, by asking where they trained or where they’re from, or giving them a compliment of some neutral kind about their efforts, they will appreciate it. They are human. If it’s part of your character anyway, it’s not calculating to be interested in them. If it isn’t part of your character, then be calculating.

3. Do not, unasked, give people who are treating you for a specific problem your entire medical history. It’s tempting with a doctor or a nurse to give what I call an “organ recital,” but it’s a waste of everyone’s time–unless you know or suspect that part of that history is directly relevant to the treatment you’re receiving.

4.  Do not, unasked, tell medical personnel your life story.

5.  Be courteously persistent about questions and matters of genuine and immediate importance to you. Once, when I was in the hospital, the heart monitor beeping in my room was keeping me from sleeping. The nurses said they couldn’t turn it down without a physician’s permission, but a guy who came in to take a chest X-ray, after he agreed that the noise was pretty annoying, closed the door after I asked him to tell me how to turn it down myself and turned it down for me and said, “Don’t tell anyone.”

6.  As the patient or friends or family of the patient, try to have a list of questions ready for appointments or for doctors’ visits in the hospital. Stick to the list, unless you’re told something you don’t understand, in which case, ask for clarification.

7.  If the person treating you wants to tell you something about himself/herself, listen closely and take an interest.

8. The word “patient” is not only a noun but an adjective. If you’re the first, be the second.

9. When you are visiting someone who is sick and/or in the hospital, let that person talk about anything he or she wants to, unless the conversation is veering toward depression, in which case you should try to help the patient out of it, praise and recognition of his or her qualities and achievements often being most useful in this respect. Limit the visit to a half an hour and don’t expect to be entertained and don’t try to be entertaining.  Your presence and whatever diversion and relaxation you can bring to the sick person are the best social medicines.

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Borrowing Jokes

Monday, May 03, 2010
Dear Mr. Menaker,
Just writing to tell you how much I enjoyed “A Good Talk…” I’m featuring a little bit more about the book and your (wonderful) writing on my blog this week. Thought you might like to take a look:
Wishing you much continued success. BTW, will you ever return to fiction writing? Sure do hope so.
Kathleen Gerard

Dear Mr. Menaker,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book, “A Good Talk” and laughed out loud on repeated occasions (doesn’t usually happen with books).  Your easy writing style made the words flow off the page just like we were chatting.  Enjoyed it immensely!

The bit about religion didn’t resonate but that would require a conversation for another time.  I might suggest Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” to contrast Christopher Hitchen’s “God is Not Great”.

Hope you won’t mind if I borrow some of the jokes.

Pete Gullo

Dear Mr. Gullo,

After such a complimentary and flattering note, by all means borrow my jokes. Thank you very much for writing, and I will definitely look at Nouwen’s book.

The tradition of borrowing (or stealing) other people’s wit or wisdom in conversation is of course an old–and I think for the most part honorable–one.  It’s an implicit compliment to the originator (if he or she really is the originator; you never know), and it shows a close attention to and understanding of what one has heard. It helps to explain why comedians are always joking about stealing jokes. And someone smart isn’t going to run out of new things to say–it’s not as though you are robbing money from his bank account.

And if you’re really super-ethical, you can always attribute the joke to the source after you crack it and get the laughs. That way, you win twice: the good response to the joke and the admiration of honesty. But maybe not in my case, because if you said, “I got that from Daniel Menaker” you might well get “Who?” in response. Not quite as resonant as Daniel Webster, perhaps.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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