The Power of Words


I sometimes wonder if doctors realize how deeply we analyze them when they present a diagnosis. The tone of their voice, their intonation, their facial expression, those are the things that patients remember when they think back on that day. Once a diagnosis has been delivered, the rest of what is said becomes a blur, so there is so much riding on that delivery.

This to me is the key indicator of a good doctor.

This is where I learned that your outlook on life can be directly impacted by the words delivered by your doctor.

Just over 4 years ago, my husband and I sat in front of a neurologist at a leading Toronto hospital where he bluntly stated the facts. He let us know that my husband had developed Multiple Sclerosis.

There was no gentleness in his voice, no work up to the delivery, no facial expression that relayed any sympathy, nothing that indicated that my husband was any different from the thousands of other patients to whom he had delivered this diagnosis. Except in this case, it was different; the diagnosis was being delivered to the love of my life.

We were devastated. My mind immediately filled with thoughts of what our new life would look like. Would my husband be able to work? Would he develop disabilities that would overtake our lives? How would we tell our children? How would our dream of growing old together and my husband golfing in his retirement be impacted?

The diagnosis was followed by the doctor handing us a brochure filled with MS medicines that he suggested we read up on. He then suggested we wait three months, do our research on the various medications and come back to him with our choice. The appointment lasted about 15 minutes in total. This life changing diagnosis and all discussion of it was over in the blink of an eye.

The note on his reception wall clearly stated that if our appointment needed to exceed 15 minutes, then they required us to reschedule an appointment with a different doctor in the clinic. Thankfully, we had JUST made the cut.

We left his office wondering how as laypeople we were supposed to navigate a brochure of MS medications and make the right choice. Was I alone in thinking that this was the doctor’s job? Did this doctor really just dump this life changing news on us and then send us on our way with a brochure?

Fast forward 6 months, and we were coming in to get results of my husbands first MRI. It was our first appointment since the start of his medication which was a twice daily injection that caused him pain and had numerous side effects. We had not even had a chance to sit down and remove our jackets before the doctor blurted out my husbands results. The MRI showed that his number of lesions on his brain had doubled and that the medication was not working. I immediately started to tear up and the genius doctor looked at me and then at my husband and said, “Graeme, I believe I have said something to upset your wife.” This doctor was seriously intuitive.

I remember getting into the car after the appointment in tears (again) and telling my husband that I was sick of the hopelessness this doctor made us feel each time we saw him. I immediately dialed the office of a doctor in New York that had been recommended to me. I was determined to become my husband’s best advocate.

One month later, we were sitting in the office of Dr. Saud Sadiq at the Tisch MS Research Center in New York. We were told to book two appointments, one for a general exam and conversation with the doctor and a second one the following evening so he could review the plan of action with us. We were told not to book a flight home for the following night because Dr. Sadiq would be willing to spend as much time as needed with us to fully talk through the disease and course of action. This was not at all what we were used to.

Dr. Sadiq became our bright light in the nightmare that is Multiple Sclerosis. He became our beacon of hope. Yes, these all seem like corny analogies but they are understatements in terms of the type of doctor he is. He understands the importance of his tone and the delivery of his message. He understands that we aren’t just another case file. He understands that every word he says will be analyzed to death when we leave our appointment.

My husband and I can vividly recall being in his office and bringing up the fact that he had awards lining his walls naming him as the best doctor by more organizations than we could name. Dr. Sadiq explained that those awards, while he was honored to have earned them, allowed him to have a large ego if he chose to, but he was only the best doctor if his patients felt that way and if he could help improve their lives, and possibly cure this disease.

A visit to Dr. Sadiq involves about an hour of banter where he reviews my husbands MRIs and talks to us about new medications and the newest research. He updates us on his progress with his stem cell research, which has just recently received FDA approval for a Phase II trial. He slips in joke after joke in between the heavy conversation. It’s like getting together for coffee with a friend, but he supplies chocolate instead of coffee (my kind of friend!). Without fail, Dr. Sadiq let’s us know that his only job is to ensure that my husband’s condition never gets worse than he is today. That is the dream that we hold on to. That is what requires me to hug Dr. Sadiq while crying at the end of each and every appointment. He has the ability to give us hope for the future and he never fails to deliver.

This is the power that words have. This is how a patient and his family can go from desperation to inspiration.

I’m not naïve, I understand being a doctor in the US is like owning a business. You pay for that doctor’s time. Whereas in Canada, everything is capped with low billing rates and overworked doctors. But how much does it actually cost a doctor to use the short time they may have with a patient to give them a glimmer of hope? Or at the very least make them feel they have your support?

It costs nothing. It takes mere seconds. Yet, it can be life changing.

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