Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17.
Scottish author (1771 - 1832)
Most often mistakenly attributed to William Shakespeare, the above quote is one that makes so much sense in such a lyrical way, I used it so often in my household when I suspected my children were lying that they would yell: "Stop it!" Lies can certainly catch you dead in your tracks. And when a habitual liar becomes older and somewhat forgetful, they can't keep their lies or their truths straight.
Be honest, we say; then you can never get caught in a lie. But it's easier said than done when 'white lies' are so prevalent and doctors do not want to disappoint their patients. Did I say 'doctors?'
According to an article in The Huffington Post, here are some lies doctors tell their patients:
This one may be said by your doctor as they try to not raise their eyebrows or shake their head in dismay at the huge, scary lesion you are presenting in the office. What they're really saying, though, is maybe they've seen this in "How To Stump The Doctor" articles in journals
"This is the best day ever."
You should know that this is standard doctor talk for, "Holy crap. Can one more thing go wrong with this day before I can get out of here?" If you hear [a doctor] say "This is the best day ever," know that [he/she has] plastered on a game face just to make it through the day, people. The best thing to do when you hear this phrase is to just nod understandingly. Seriously.
"Everything's going to be all right."
Now, when [doctors] say this, [they] don't really mean to lie. In fact, in [their] hearts, [they] hope and pray that this is true. [They] want to believe it in [their] core. [They] usually say this after [they] have been the bearer of bad news: a pathology report that reads cancer; an X-ray that shows a problem; an unusual reaction to a medication. [They] believe it when [they] tell you that it's going to be all right. [They] really do. But sometimes [they] have no way of knowing.
"I'll be done here in 20 minutes."
This is the common time frame used by the surgeon in the OR. This lie is spoken to the nurse who hasn't had a break in four hours and wonders how much longer her bladder can wait. It's a lie spoken to the supervising nurse who wonders if she needs to call in the night shift of technicians and nurses so the surgery can be finished safely. This lie is also told to the anesthesiologist who wants to know how much more sedation the patient needs to tolerate the procedure. The truth is: Finishing surgery is like driving in Friday traffic at 5 o'clock. [Surgeons] hope they'll be done in 20 minutes. [They] think [they] might. [They're] telling the Surgery Gods that [they], too, have a full bladder and an empty belly. But [they] are kinda just hoping. And praying.
"I'll send a note to your referring doctor tonight."
This lie is sort of like the one we all tell ourselves, "I'm going to eat more vegetables. Starting now." Instead, [doctors] are so tired and hungry when [they] get home that [they] have a cold bowl of cereal because [they're] too spent to throw a bag of veggies in the microwave. [They] have the best of intentions to send that letter to your doctor. And it will get done eventually. Honest. But give [them] about a week. OK, two.
"This won't hurt a bit."
Oops. Sorry. It does hurt. A little more than "a bit." But if [your doctor] told you it would hurt like hell, would it be any better for you? Doctors don't think so. That's why [they] all keep saying this. What [doctors] should probably say is the real truth: "This won't hurt me a bit."
"You're making progress."
The truth is, maybe you are. And maybe you aren't. What [your doctor] really means is, "Thank goodness you're not backsliding." [Doctors] mean that, despite the disease, despite your continued smoking, despite the serious injury you had, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. [They] can see it, even if you can't. The lie, though, is necessary because [they] thought you'd be out of the tunnel by now.
"My patients need me."
Hmmm. I'll bet you're surprised at this one. It's kinda true. As the article's author, a doctor herself, states: "We need you, dear patients. We need you to remind us of why we all went into medicine in the first place. We need you to remind us of our beloved grandmother, our great uncle, our second grade teacher. We need to be able to love you and show you compassion with all our heart. We need the connection that comes with true healing."*
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Interesting stuff, no? I had an almost hilarious session with my therapist the other day where she couldn't stop fidgeting and turning her fan on and off and talking fast, etc. Finally, we figured out that she had indulged in her first cup of caffeinated coffee in 25 years and she literally couldn't sit still. She didn't remember what I said. She didn't remember what she said; but because I recognize that she is human and we have a good relationship, she actually made my day. We laughed and joked and I realized how very like me she is - good days, bad days, and all that happens in between.
What can we learn from this? We need 'keepers,' those doctors or therapists who keep grounded in what is the human condition. We need less lying and more honesty but we can forgive the occasional lie or gaffe if the human doctor before us is in tumult of his/her own. What we can not forgive is a medical practitioner who is patronizing or arrogant and lies just for the sake of it.
The last thing my longtime doctor said to me before I was diagnosed with Stage 4B Hodgkins Lymphoma and Lupus was: "You're a normal 36-year-old woman. Go live your life." He lied. He missed the diagnoses. His radar was completely off that day, week, month. And just three weeks later when I died and was brought back to life, he asked to be involved with my care. I told him to go to hell. Some lies are just too big to be forgiven.
Nowadays I tell all my treating doctors not to tell me what they are going to do to me. For example, if they're going to stick the big needle in my back, just go ahead and do it. I don't need a pre-warning because then I tense up. I wear music headphones when procedures are going on. I don't want to chit chat with the attendings or nurses or anyone - I want to go to my zone out place. In clinical terms, I disassociate. It protects my psyche and I don't have to watch out for any tangled spiderwebs.
*Credit: Starla Fitch, MD, is a practicing oculoplastic surgeon. Dr. Fitch is also an author, professional speaker, and certified life coach. She has a passion to help those in the medical field suffering from burnout. Her new book, Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine, is now available.