Sometimes you’re not ready to hear the bad news.
Bad news: the news the doctors need to tell you, the diagnosis, the prognosis, the estimations, the best guesses. Sometimes, even if you want to be, emotionally you’re just not there yet.
When Wendy was struck with her initial illness, the doctors didn’t have a lot of positive things to say. She was incredibly sick, and if she survived, there would be a lot of lingering health problems to contend with. I could tell just by the looks on their faces during morning rounds that things were not going well. Many years later, the division chair of Infectious Disease told me, “I dreaded coming into your room every day, because I never had any good news for you.”
They did their best to deliver the bad news to us slowly, and sometimes we were receptive to it, and sometimes we weren’t. It is hard to hear from anyone that your world has been completely altered and some doctors are better at delivering bad news than others.
I remember one of the first doctors who came in to deliver bad news. It turns out that Wendy’s pancreas was pretty much destroyed, making her an insulin dependent diabetic. Unfortunately, that is how the doctor opened the conversation, over Wendy’s hospital bed, in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. She looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, some day in the future Wendy will come to you and want a cupcake, and you’ll know that it’s so many carbs, and you’ll give her the insulin.”
And I remember thinking, in that moment, that she was absolutely crazy. I would never, NEVER, be that ok with giving my daughter insulin. I thought that she might as well be telling me that I’d never notice that hook she now has for a hand and she will eventually learn how to tie her shoe. (Just an example, Wendy’s hands are fine.) I remember thinking that it was all too overwhelming to bear. Blood sugar checks eight times a day? Shots? Carb counting? Seriously, What the Hell? How could this doctor be so callous in her delivery? Didn’t she have a heart?
A few years later, when Wendy was in kindergarten, a student brought in cupcakes, and the nurse called me. I approved the cupcake, instructed the nurse to give her insulin for sixty carbs, and hung up the phone, no problem.
Instantly I remembered that day in the hospital.
Damn. That doctor was right. I just wasn’t ready to hear it.
While Wendy was initially in the hospital, other days were harder. The day the doctors took us into the conference room to break the bad news about Wendy’s long term condition. The charts we had to look at, the medicines we would be expected to give. I remember crying so much that there was no point in trying to stop the tears with a tissue, they just silently ran down my face. The doctors looked at me with pity and said, “We can do this another time,” and I replied, “I’ll cry like this then too, let’s just get it over with.”
I later learned that the doctors call that particular conference room the “Room of Doom.”
Then the the doctors told us that Wendy would need a kidney transplant. Almost every doctor in the practice told us at different times. The first doctor told me early on, in the parking lot, in passing. I hoped he was joking. Two others told us while Wendy was in the hospital. One told us in the outpatient clinic. It wasn’t a sit down intervention style of news breaking like in the “room of doom”, it was just giving an idea of what was coming up in the near future. No tears those times, because the news seemed so abstract.
I remember meeting with another mom whose daughter had a kidney transplant, who told me that I’d likely have to quit my job permanently to take care of all of the details of Wendy’s illness, and the tears came back in a flash. Nothing was going to be the same again. There was no pretending that it would be like it used to be, I was the mom of a chronically ill kid and all the rules had changed. It’s fear of the unknown combined with the crushing knowledge of what you ALREADY know that makes it so hard to bear.
Sometimes the messenger IS the problem, like the doctor who tells you bad news like ripping off a band-aid. It stings and you wonder if they couldn’t have been just a tiny bit more gentle. An ophthalmologist once told me that it didn’t matter how well we controlled Wendy’s blood sugar, that she would probably go blind eventually anyway. That could have been more tactful. I still wonder why she said it that way. Some people don’t think about the consequences of their words on a patient or her parents.
Even if the doctors do the best they can to tell you, even if they explain it clearly, even if what they says makes sense. Sometimes you’re just not ready.
But you will be.
With time. With Healing. With understanding. With education. With support. With love.
Be gentle with yourself and this journey.
You will be ready to hear the bad news, and move forward.