If you’ve ever heard a doctor deliver bad news, everything about that moment is probably seared into your brain with a permanence that rivals the moment you heard that Kennedy had been shot (if you’re that old) or the Towers had been hit (if you’re not.)
Is it because our doctors are the white-robed, high priests of medicine that their every word, frown, or raised eyebrow has the power to plunge us into the depths of despair? Is this why we scrutinize their phrases and mannerisms for clues about the future of our bodies?
Of course doctors — despite the mystique surrounding them — aren’t the high priests of medicine and they don’t have ultimate knowledge about our destinies. As one very wise doctor once told me, “a diagnosis — or a prognosis — for that matter, is just an opinion.” A well-informed opinion, to be sure, but not one that is carved in stone. If I had believed the neurologists who told me twelve years ago that I would probably never walk or fully use my left arm again, I’d be an invalid today. If my friend Janet had believed the oncologist who told her that she had one year to live, she would not now — ten years later — be writing her memoirs and enjoying her grandchildren.
The stories of triumph over diagnosis go on and on, and every time I hear or write about another one, I am awed anew at the power of the human spirit to overcome medical calamities that look hopeless. When I woke up from surgery with my half my body paralyzed by a stroke, what I thought was a calamity actually turned out to be a gift: It taught me something about myself and launched me on a new professional path. On this path, I have been privileged to meet and write the stories of courageous people who chose to disobey their diagnoses and to forge their own destinies of healing. Their very existence gives hope to all of us.
Of course we need our doctors. They are trained to make diagnoses. But they are not infallible. We should temper their opinions with what we know about ourselves. And they in turn need to recognize that their words are powerful influences on our bodies, minds and spirits, and they should be chosen wisely. We want our doctors to tell us the truth as they see it, but we also need them to be our partners in hope. Because, after all, neither they nor we really know what the future holds.