Ohad Oren injects hope into medical communication

Ohad OrenIn Israel, a country where we don’t need reminding of the precariousness of life, absolute terms like life and death are sometimes blurred. This gives power to the sort of faith that relatives tend to develop, on their endless journey of praying for their dreams – of resurrecting their loved ones from the enemy’s hands – to come true.
Five months have passed since the abduction of two Israeli soldiers – which almost triggered the second Lebanon war of 2006 – reached its grim conclusion. For two families – a whole nation even – their perhaps overoptimistic wishes were disappointed, with two coffins bearing Israeli flags and carrying the remains of Sergeant First Class Ehud Goldwasser and Staff Sergeant Eldad Regev; all part of a prisoner exchange with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Question marks were sprayed all over owing to a carefully conducted campaign carried by Hezbollah, which kept the kidnapped soldiers’ fate concealed until the eventual exposure of the coffins.

In the tiny but tormented Middle East district that is Israel, where a navigator is still believed to be alive after 22 years of being reported missing, uncertainty transforms into hope: an improvised shelter from having to come to terms with the treatment Israeli soldiers will experience when taken hostage by Hezbollah and other terrorist organisations. The prospects of welcoming back our loved ones, once taken captive, are dim. Nevertheless, the desire for miracles ties families together, spurring them on not to succumb until they receive final confirmation of the relative’s death.
There is a lesson here. Most Israelis prefer to remain optimistic even in the face of death, the inevitable. Maybe, just maybe, they suggest, those terrible deeds, and the traumatic scars they leave, are inevitable steps, composed by a higher force, toward a brighter future for us all. Having followed the media coverage from the abduction to the Kadish sung at the foot of the two soldiers’ graves, I wonder why doctors do not make use of that precious tool named hope more often. Is it wrong to inform patients with incurable diseases of miracles that have occurred and keep occurring? To inject some hope into this depressing system? Why not point at a possible brighter future, in case one exists?

In Israeli perception, those giving their lives in securing the holy land should be rewarded with unlimited attempts to enhance their safe and healthy return. Just as the basic cornerstone of Jewish tradition endows us with a moral responsibility to safely bring our soldiers back home, so should the medical profession view the saving of people as a sacred mission, incorporating whatever tools there are to increase the chances of a successful recovery.

Medical jargon suffers from a “glass half empty” mode of communication. When recovery statistics are presented to a patient, it will be explained that his or her disease has a 5-year survival rate that is equal to, say, 5%. Would the patient’s response be different if he or she were told that hundreds of thousands of individuals have managed to fully recuperate from their specific ailment, subsequently regaining perfectly functional lives? Or that millions of people with the very same prognosis have survived for more than three years from the time they received their diagnosis?

I have a good reason to believe that it would. Medical nomenclature surely affects medical practitioners no less than it influences patients. You will typically hear a surgeon proclaiming that he or she is to operate on six breast cancer patients. Imagine the same surgeon declaring: “Today I will fight for the lives of half a dozen patients.” The patients will feel reassured; the doctors will experience an authentic urge to perform their best; and the clouds of pessimistic medical prognoses will dissipate.

Such small acts of medical patriotism may carry the medical profession to higher achievements while requiring from doctors nothing more than goodwill and sincere devotion.

Ohad Oren, fourth year medical student, Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel