Learning to Speak Like a Doctor
I am the daughter of a neurologist and an oncologist, granddaughter of a gastroenterologist, sister of an emergency medical doctor and neuro-critical care specialist. Medical language is the native tongue in my house, and for 16 years I could not interpret any of it. It took a year and a life-changing experience for me to grasp “med speak.”
“The MRI showed a four centimeter hemorrhage in the thalamus.” What does that mean? Will they ever stop talking about it? This was the dinner conversation at my house every night. My parents would talk about their day, and I would sit there clueless, bored, and silent, playing with the steak and green beans on my plate. Occasionally I could pick out a word or disease I recognized after hearing it mentioned so often. I would hear “lumbar” and think, That’s the lower back, or “spinal tap” and think, The test where they put a needle in the spine. I could never keep up with my mom and dad’s conversation, but I didn’t really want to.
One day, my mom was late and I was left sitting outside school in the Texas sun for 30 minutes. Something was not right. When I got into the truck, my mom was talking on the phone. I heard her say “metastatic hepatocellular carcinoma.” She was upset, and I knew she wasn’t talking about one of her patients. The only word I recognized was “carcinoma.”
Carcinoma is cancer.
When she finally hung up, she told me, “Dad has cancer.” Aside from the paralyzing shock, I had a billion questions: How bad is it? What kind? Where? Will he be okay?” If I had only taken the time to understand their dinnertime doctor talk, I might have had the answers. Those answers eventually came from my brother, Ryan, who was in medical school.
Ryan sat at the computer and I sat on the floor by his feet as he explained our father’s diagnosis. He pulled up Dad’s scans on the screen, pointing out every tumor and explaining what could happen because of it. That night was my crash course in med speak. This time I asked questions and I made certain I knew what the words meant.
By the time my dad passed away, I could understand the medical discussions. I did not feel like that naive little girl anymore. I felt intelligent and accomplished. Now I look at myself and realize it is so much more than understanding medical terminology.
When I was younger I did not understand because I did not care. I did not take the initiative to learn. When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, it hit me personally. It made me want to understand – not just the doctor talk but everything. I found a strength and independence in myself I never knew was there. I learned to handle my emotions like someone beyond my years. I drove myself to swim practice and 40 miles to school every day. I focused on my schoolwork without having to be bugged to do it. I took responsibility for myself. I grasped the doctor talk. I grew up.