Talking To People Who Are Ill

One of the presenters at DOWI’s 30th Anniversary on November 10, 2013, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, is the author of How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.

The book focuses on various aspects of how to talk to and behave around friends who are sick and be more aware of, sensitive to, and responsive to their needs.

It got me thinking about how to talk to and behave around mentally ill family, acquaintances, etc., especially when they are sick, and how to be more aware of, sensitive to, and responsive to their needs.

This whole thing with my son David’s medical problems has been and continues to be a learning experience. How does one tell a mentally ill loved one, for instance, that without surgery he or she may be paralyzed?

I’ve seen people talk about mentally ill patients as if they weren’t there, as if they would not understand what was being said, and when speaking to them, using vocabulary they do not understand, not reaching them, or trying to reach them on a level they do not understand, and not asking them what they want or what is important to them.

David became visibly distressed, indeed his emotional reaction escalated quickly, when he first told me that he did not have his wallet, keys, a chain, and phone charger when he was transferred from Winthrop to Huntington Hills.

At that particular moment, his need to have his property was more important to him than his medical condition.

Would telling him not to worry and that the main thing he had to work on was getting better have been the best response at that time?

I didn’t think so, and armed by guidance offered in Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s book, it appears that my instinct was right: I picked up the phone and called Winthrop in front of David and left a message with the social worker who had been involved in his discharge.

David calmed down immediately and then was receptive to talking about other health-related matters.

Sometimes, you gain insights into the thoughts of mentally ill persons quite by chance and in a way that comes as a surprise.

David’s surgeon seemed to pick up on this instinctively. At the first outpatient follow-up appointment with the surgeon, the surgeon had an x-ray technician take x-rays of David’s thoracic spine, and then in the examining room (I was with David who was sitting in a wheelchair), the surgeon put the x-rays up to study them and told me to look at where the rods were placed and screws were securing the rods in several vertebrae.

David’s immediate reaction was to say, “I didn’t know I had screws”; “you mean I’m like Wolverine?” The surgeon quickly replied, “You like X-Men? I do too.” And David then commented that like Wolverine he now had super powers. I used this visual image a bit and told David that his back is like Wolverine and will heal with treatment and physical therapy.

David seemed satisfied, and the two slices of pizza while waiting for the ambulette to pick him up was icing on the cake.

I appreciate what I learned from Letty Cottin Pogrebin. It is geared towards the public at large.

I’m interested in taking a closer look at our communications and interactions with medically ill mentally ill loved ones and non-patients of ours.




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