Imagine that you’ve been in a bad biking accident and have multiple fractures in your right leg. You’re at the early stages of recovery, full of pain, pins and plates. The orthopedist or sports medicine doc sits down with you and says,
“I know you feel pretty banged up, but you’ve got good odds of a full recovery. Based on your age, the nature of your injury and other factors, there is about a five percent chance you’re going to have a significant, long-term disability. There’s maybe another three to five percent chance you’ll have a minor disability that will slow you down a bit but won’t require anything major like walking with a cane for the rest of your life. So odds are more than nine out of ten that you’ll have a full recovery.”
The amount of time that you worry about a bad outcome will far be out of proportion to its likelihood. During your drawn-out recovery you’ll have many idle moments and the possibility of never running or cycling again—or of never again chasing your kids across the lawn—will occupy most of your thoughts.
Now imagine the doc tells you the same thing, but then says:
“You know, earlier this week I had a follow up appointment with another patient who had a very similar injury eighteen months ago, although she also broke a collar bone. She’s around your age and has a lot in common with you, physically speaking, and she’s doing great. She’s planning an eight day backbacking trip in the San Juans next month. Anyway, don’t be too discouraged. I’ve seen people in worse situations make full recoveries.”
You’re going to sleep a lot better if the doc provides such a tangible example because you can envision yourself as the leading character. It’s a simply-stated, true story requiring no flair. Yet an anecdote like that, however insignificant in the grand scheme of things, has the power to limit a person’s emotional suffering. In so doing, it can even improve the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Giving a patient false reassurance is unethical. I’m not advocating that you make up stories. I am advocating that we use stories honestly to give people perspective on difficult situations. Medical practices can reduce emotional stress using these tactics, but they apply to many situations.
We should all learn to harness the power of a well-told story.