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Healing Words

Monday, August 8, 2016
By Raymond Barfield
Tell Me a Story

If you look at old medical texts, you see a kind of poetry in the naming of things. Some names are nearly onomatopoeic: The rumbling your stomach and intestines makes is called borborygmus. Some names sound like characters in an action movie: The buccinator is the muscle that allows you to pull back the angle of the mouth and flatten the cheek area. Other names are evidence that anatomists have imaginations, too: I remember the first time I dissected down to the bony indentation deep in the head that holds the pituitary gland, a part called the sella tursica, the Turkish saddle.

But human beings are more than their biology, and however beautiful and fascinating the language of medicine can be, that same language can be alienating and confusing to patients if clinicians do not pay attention to other forms of language, other ways of speaking about the body. This is especially true at the end of life, when it is crucial that we understand what matters to a patient and family.

Patients have stories physicians need to hear.

I once had a patient who was eight years old, and who was dying from complications related to a bone-marrow transplant. His father, who was Muslim, was uncertain about decisions he had to make such as whether or not to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation when the child’s heart stopped. From within his story, he wanted to be faithful to his son and faithful to God. I had no idea how to help him find his way. When I walked into the room, I heard music playing, and so I began our conversation by saying, “What beautiful music.”

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