Theresa Williamson, MD, a resident in the department of neurosurgery at Duke University Hospital, delivers tough news to patients and their families on a regular basis. Here's her advice for coping when you're on the receiving end.

Get on the same page.
There's often a difference between what doctors say and what patients and their families actually hear. Make clear what you heard by repeating it back to your physician. That will give your doctor the chance to specify whether "I'll return in an hour" is a hospital hour (anywhere from one hour to a day, depending on emergencies) or truly 60 minutes, or what she means when she says she's "worried" that your loved one isn't doing well. Sharing what you hear can help us communicate better.

Make friends (and maybe order a large pepperoni).
Whether you're the patient or a family member, finding support can make a trip to the hospital less scary. I love to see families and friends sharing pizza with others in the waiting room while their loved ones are in surgery. And when patients are in recovery, it's great to get advice from one another. I've heard everything from "Don't forget the dry shampoo" to "They don't tell you that the swelling lasts for weeks." It's all helpful!

Don't obsess over survival statistics.
Asking the doctor about percentages may give you a false sense of hope since most people think they'll fare better than average. Frame questions in terms of personal goals. One patient with late-stage cancer wanted to attend his daughter's wedding and asked whether she should move up the date. We told him yes, and he got the chance to dance the night away with his family.


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