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May 5, 2024

I read a story once about two gas company employees doing routine inspections. Boys being boys, they decided to have a race to their truck from the backyard they were in at the time.

When they finished the race, they turned around to find the middle-aged woman who owned the property bent over gasping for breath. They asked what was up. She said she saw two gas company employees running and assumed imminent danger. She high-tailed it after them.

My dad and my wife had a great relationship. Closer than his relationship with me. I was always happy about that. I’m not the best at family relationships and I’m not sure Dad ever quite knew what to do with me. It is a different family dynamic as I understand family dynamics. My wife is good at creating her own dynamic. She told me once about something my dad told her about me. He told her I listen. It was a bit more than that. He told her I don’t APPEAR to listen, and I don’t always agree with what I hear, but I always listen.

I had to think about it but I realized he was right. Even if I don’t agree at a moment, I listen and wrestle and often come around to what I hear. It is never in one ear and out the other. I’m not presenting this as a good thing, or particularly clever. Just that I pay attention no matter how it seems to people who talk to me. This has always been a bit of a revelation for me about my dad. Discernment. I don’t know how much credit to give him. I never saw this through my own observation, only through something he told my wife.

For most of my life, my health issues have been mechanical. Knees. Elbows. Wrists. Thumbs. Cuts/stitches. Things removed from things vital. I had an operation on my neck once. The doctor took a slice of bone out of my left leg to fuse into three vertebrae. That was the longest recovery I ever had and the only time surgery ever scared me. They went in through the front. The spine is mechanical but kind of vital too. Things worked out.

Recently I visited the emergency room with intense stomach pains. It was busy and I was a while being seen. When my turn came, they gave me an IV and some chemical comfort. A narcotic. It addressed the pain and I got a CAT scan. When the results came back a doctor came in to discuss the findings. By now the pain had mostly eased and I could pay attention.

I did what my dad told my wife I do. I listened. The doctor felt I should be admitted at that time. It had been some hours getting to this point and the pain was gone. I declined the admission, signed an AMA, and left. The most significant driver of that decision was that I had listened to the doctor. I paid close attention to the words said, but even closer attention to the WAY they were said. There was simply no urgency in the doctor’s words or facial expression or demeanor. The words were matter-of-fact. They gave me no sense of consequence. No visible sense of URGENCY. I went home not quite feeling things were resolved, only that they were heading in that direction. The doctor made no effort to dissuade me and, in fact, seemed just a little smug in accepting my decision. I would be back in the emergency room in a matter of hours. The offer to admit was again made and this time, I accepted.

In the aftermath of this experience, I have changed a little in how I deal with doctors who pass through my orbit. I now explicitly tell them I am reading them. In just those terms. I let them know that I’m not only listening to what they say, I’m also carefully weighing HOW they say what they say.

I have thought about this at some length and I have come to suspect that when they deliver less than favorable messages, perhaps they suppress any show of urgency to avoid alarm. Medicine is art as much as science. There are no guarantees because every situation is a little or a lot different in spite of similarities. Outcomes are not guaranteed. You can’t presume. Doctors can’t dose out panic or hope, only information and recommendations.

I see their side. I listen to what they say but also to what is unsaid about their obligations (legal and medical) and situations and, to the extent I can, to their perception of the situation at hand. The doctor of the first emergency visit had not conveyed to me (to my perception) that the situation was urgent and I responded to that. Kind of like the lady who read the actions of two gas company technicians and reacted as she felt appropriate.

Of course, this is not only something that is profitable with doctors. Reading people in situations is also useful when dealing with police. Or drivers. Or passengers. Or shoppers. Or people on a bus. There is value in seeing the point of view of anyone who passes through our orbit and makes any kind of contact.

It is also wise to temper that reading with consideration. It is easy to misunderstand or misread. It is easy to be led to overreaction. Or failure to act. I’m definitely not the smartest guy in the world. When I get to thinking I am, a little further thought puts that thought to rest. My dad saw a truth he shared with my wife. I listen. Even when it seems I am not. I keep weighing what I have heard, usually long after I listen. I haven’t perfected things. Even a careful listener can read things wrong. Sometimes it takes two ‘trips to the emergency room’, but usually, if it is truly urgent, I get there.

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