A SCARY SYM­PA­THY

Olly Mann dis­cov­ers that peo­ple find it sur­pris­ingly hard to say, “Get well soon”

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - OLLY MANN

About to have an oper­a­tion? Be warned. Peo­ple won’t shy away from shar­ing med­i­cal misad­ven­tures.

MY MUM’S ABOUT TO have spinal surgery. There’s an il­lu­sion of choice about it: one con­sul­tant sug­gested she should have it im­me­di­ately, while another said she had “acres of time” to make up her mind. (When pushed, he said she shouldn’t leave it un­treated for more than six months.)

The oper­a­tion – a lum­bar de­com­pres­sion – is rel­a­tively straight­for­ward, in spinal surgery terms, but does carry a risk of paral­y­sis, as does any in­ter­ven­tion around those nerves. If she opted not to have the pro­ce­dure, though, there would be a chance of even­tu­ally be­com­ing con­fined to a wheel­chair any­way. So, surgery it is.

Friends and fam­ily have re­acted to this news pre­dictably, of­fer­ing up chicken soup and plat­i­tudes, but also sur­pris­ingly, by talk­ing in such neg­a­tive terms that Mum has come to la­bel the en­coun­ters “psy­cho­log­i­cal theft”. This con­ver­sa­tional crime is mo­ti­vated by com­pas­sion, but can have dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences, and is usu­ally com­mit­ted by ac­ci­dent. It oc­curs when – by thought­lessly re­flect­ing their own neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences – other peo­ple hi­jack your anx­i­ety and put them­selves in it, rather than pro­vide re­lief from it.

I’LL GIVE YOU AN EX­AM­PLE. Last week Mum went to the post of­fice and bumped into Ge­off (not his real name), who works for the lo­cal travel agent. “How are you?” he asked.

“Not great,” she replied. “I’ve been hav­ing some trou­ble with my back and I’m go­ing to need surgery.”

“Oh, GOD!” he re­sponded. “The back is the most dan­ger­ous place to op­er­ate. My mum had that and she was in ter­ri­ble pain. Make sure you get all your af­fairs in or­der be­fore you go un­der the knife – it takes months to get over it!”

Now, Ge­off ’s in­ten­tion had been be­nign. He’d re­layed his own mother’s story to show sym­pa­thy, ie, demon­strat­ing his knowl­edge that chronic back pain is nasty. He’d also wanted to show em­pa­thy – to ar­tic­u­late that Mum is hardly the only per­son to have suf­fered with this con­di­tion, and she needn’t feel alone. As he walked away, Ge­off was prob­a­bly think­ing: I’ve just re­lated on a per­sonal level to this panic-stricken woman. I’ve told her a story about some­one I know who ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar ob­sta­cles and came through alive. Well done, Ge­off, you’re quite the man! You’re get­ting a bub­ble bath tonight! Need­less to say, this was not Mum’s take­away from Ge­off. She heard: pain, dan­ger, knife, months.

As­ton­ish­ingly, another ac­quain­tance re­acted to Mum’s predica­ment by ac­tu­ally reel­ing off sta­tis­tics for un­suc­cess­ful back surgery. I can’t be­gin to fathom how this could be con­sid­ered a help­ful con­tri­bu­tion, frankly – but, if I’m be­ing char­i­ta­ble, per­haps it was his way of say­ing, “You’re right to be con­cerned, yes;

it’s a se­ri­ous oper­a­tion.” In­evitably, all Mum fo­cused on was a fright­en­ing prog­no­sis which, as it turns out, wasn’t even ac­cu­rate for her spe­cific con­di­tion (yes, I Googled it later).

ONCE YOU START LIS­TEN­ING OUT FOR IT, it’s stag­ger­ing how reg­u­larly peo­ple re­spond to another per­son’s ill health by talk­ing ex­ten­sively about them­selves, or some­one else they once knew; some­one with a com­pletely dif­fer­ent con­di­tion, who more of­ten than not ex­pe­ri­enced a neg­a­tive out­come.

In the past few weeks, Mum’s mates and col­leagues have re­galed her with sto­ries about their Aunty Tr­isha, who re­quired rapid fol­low- up surgery; their neigh­bour, who caught a su­per­bug and never walked again; their grand­mother, who had some­thing sim­i­lar – well not that sim­i­lar at all re­ally, a heart at­tack, but still, it’s all surgery, isn’t it? And yes, OK, she was 96, and yes, she’d chain-smoked for 50 years, but still, here’s the point, her re­cov­ery pe­riod was so stren­u­ous … and on it goes. Psy­cho­log­i­cal theft.

It’s re­ally not that dif­fi­cult to think of al­ter­na­tive things they could have said that would be equally true, but more ben­e­fi­cial to hear. “The spe­cial­ists in our hos­pi­tals are among the best in the world. It’s amaz­ing what they can do these days!” – that’s a good one. “You’re go­ing to feel much bet­ter af­ter­wards. It’ll be a new lease of life for you!” – that’s another. “Is there any­thing I can do to help?” – that’s al­ways a wel­come ­of­fer. Pos­i­tive sug­ges­tions, rather than com­pound­ing the neg­a­tive thoughts in­evitably cir­cling around in­side the head of some­one who’s al­ready anx­ious about surgery, are all that’s re­quired.

I’M NOT SUG­GEST­ING PA­TIENTS should be shel­tered from the re­al­ity of the risks they’re tak­ing. But if the de­ci­sion to have surgery has al­ready been taken, or can’t re­ally be avoided, what’s the pur­pose of high­light­ing the draw­backs? To put it another way – when our pipes burst, we want our friends to rec­om­mend a good plumber, rather than tell us about the tor­ren­tial flood they saw on the TV news. When we’re at the GP, we pre­fer nurses who say, “You may feel a prick­ing sen­sa­tion”, to those who say, “This is go­ing to hurt”.

And when we’re fac­ing a scary and pre­car­i­ous med­i­cal treat­ment, the re­sults of which are en­tirely out of our own con­trol, surely it’s just com­mon sense to say, “Get well soon, and how can I help?”

If surgery can’t be avoided, what’s the pur­pose of high­light­ing the draw­backs?

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