I come from a family of doctors. My dad is a retired physician. He’s a son of immigrants who attended med school on a scholarship. For decades he practiced internal medicine together with his younger brother, my closest uncle. They cared for countless adults, gradually absorbing their patients’ spouses and siblings, children and grandchildren into their burgeoning practice.
Our dinners at home were punctuated by calls from the answering service about all sorts of emergencies. Every night at the end of the meal, my father would sit at the table sipping tea, returning patients’ calls to discuss their test results and concerns. Sitting in the next room, doing my homework, I heard about tumors, pain, headaches, heartburn and heart attacks. I learned about symptoms, blood tests and the concept of a differential diagnosis. You name it, pretty much any illness, and I might have answered a few questions. It was a bit like watching “House,” but on-stage, in my home.
Family gatherings centered on two things – food, and talk about medicine. We spoke of interesting cases (always nameless), challenging conditions and, even back then, the constraints of health care costs. My fiancé, now husband of over 20 years, couldn’t get over how debate over health care dominated our Rosh Hashanah and Thanksgiving feasts.
Now I’m getting to my point –
I grew up learning about medicine, and I understood the terms early on. I’d been a patient, too, in and out of orthopedists’ offices and disfiguring braces in my adolescence, and then in the hospital with inexplicable fevers, blood clots and more. All that, before becoming a physician, doing research and taking care of people facing the most serious of illnesses.
As a patient, I entered the doctor’s office armed with information. Seven years ago, when I learned I had breast cancer, I knew exactly what to do. The decisions, though difficult, were almost straightforward, buttressed by my knowledge and familiarity with the language of medicine.
Tomorrow, over dinner, I don’t want to talk about mammograms. Or health care reform, or even the swine flu. But I do want to learn and exchange ideas.
People – patients and doctors both – need to speak a common language. Just as at the dinner table, the conversation moves forward only if we keep our minds open, listen carefully and communicate with mutual respect.