“I get better, then go home.”

“Yes. Yes, Mr. B. Are you having pain?”

“Some pain in stomach. Hungry. I am hungry.”

“Mr. B., there’s a blockage. We can’t let you have any food today.”

Every day the same dialogue as the patient wasted and the family adamantly refused to tell him, or let us tell him that his cancer was out of control and he was dying.  Surely he must know, we thought. But we weren’t allowed to discuss it with him. And his English was not very good, either.

The students and I talked of the role of language. Capacity to speak English is just one thin layer of the role of language in the hospital.  We can always get an interpreter, as cumbersome and awkward as that may be.  But often we speak the same language and our words mean different things to us, or what we say makes no sense to the other.  We sometimes say a patient is a “poor historian” because their description of what is happening to them doesn’t fit the questions we are asking, doesn’t fit itself nicely into our definitions or our models. A patient having a heart attack may say that they have “squeezing” or “tightness” in their chest. But what if they say they have “a gulp” in their chest? What does that mean? Or, on another level, what is lost when the dialogue between patients and physicians doesn’t speak at all of the course of illness. With the elderly gentleman who is hungry, what is he really saying when he says “I get better, then go home”?  Is he saying help me please or is he saying you people are nincompoops and I want out of here? We say, “We can’t let you have any food today” and we aren’t saying there’s a massive tumor lodged in your esophagus making any form of oral sustenance impossible. And we don’t say we are so helpless in the face of this and you need to spend these remaining days being with your family.

“Mr. B., there’s a blockage.”

what is he really saying?

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