I’m a straight talker. I appreciate others who don’t sugarcoat what they are trying to say to me; they say it how they see it. Sometimes it takes a couple of times saying something to me before it sinks in. Not because I don’t want to hear but because hearing what someone says often means that I need to make a shift or a change in my thinking. Change takes time. A change in thinking doesn’t happen instantaneously.
When the doctor in the walk-in emergency tried to tell me how serious my condition was after doing the tests and hearing the results of the CT scan, it wasn’t that I was in denial of the situation and not willing to hear what he was saying. I heard perfectly what he said. It was just that I had been focused on my study leave for over 12 months and so it was unbelievable hearing the words that he spoke. It didn’t occur to me waking up the week before with extreme back pain that I would need urgent surgery; I still thought that the situation would sort itself out. To hear from the doctor that I needed to be admitted into hospital immediately and to see the neurosurgeon first thing in the morning was not heart-breaking, it was a shock. Looking back on that evening, I was numb. That was the reason why I kept repeating to him that I was due to fly out in 12 days. But also, the doctor wasn’t talking straight to me. He was talking down the situation as though it was optional. Trying to coax me into going to hospital. The carrot was the recovery of movement in my right leg.
The surgeon though was different. He was a straight talker and he was honest from the beginning. That first meeting he was upfront about the fact that if my situation was only about back pain and sciatica, then he wouldn’t operate; but because I had lost movement in my right leg, he thought it was worth operating straight away. He tested my legs, he saw how weak they were. When he phoned later that afternoon after seeing the MRI, again he was upfront with the fact that the surgery was no longer straightforward. If anyone was holding back information, it was me. It’s hard to admit where you have lost sensation when you are a single female in her early 30s not used to speaking about personal information. I’m not exactly forthcoming with private details at the best of times with the people I trust. The surgeon was right not to trust that what I said was the full picture. I’m not proud of that fact. I had lost more sensation than what I was willing to admit. I should have had more courage to say how it was.
The morning of the op, when the surgeon had taken a closer look at the MRI and had obviously planned the surgery, he was clear that there was a change in purpose. The intent was no longer recovery, it was prevention. He looked me in the eye and I knew that he was serious, he meant what he was saying and he needed me to understand the extent of the problem. He didn’t try to cover up that he was unsure how much the nerves will recover. If it was a matter of bruised nerves, then he could be definite; but with nerves that had been so badly squashed, he could not say. He never promised anything. But what he did know was that I would lose bladder and bowel function as well as movement in my left leg if he didn’t operate as a matter of urgency. His transparency, his straight talking, his willingness to be relational, were actually the reasons why I accepted the prognosis. They were hard words to hear. Inwardly I was crumbling. Inwardly I was crying out to God to help me get through this. I felt myself taking big deep breaths. But his manner, his steadiness, his willingness to really look me in the eyes while talking to me meant that I could hold myself together.
The surgeon’s prognosis did not change after the surgery. If anything he was more certain in his uncertainty about the extent of recovery. When he suddenly started talking inpatient rehabilitation, he was talking with the same earnestness. He was honest. It could be that I left rehab with no progress. In his opinion though it was worth a try. Not doing the rehab could be detrimental. Again, the way he didn’t sugarcoat, the way he was being real, meant that I could more readily accept the coming change in plans. It also meant that I started rehab being real, real with myself and being real with my medical team. I wasn’t under any allusion that I would be walking out of rehab without any disability. But neither was I being pessimistic. The surgeon had prepared me well to be positive while knowing the reality. The way he consistently related to me – being positive while being realistic – reminded me of the importance of being real. We don’t do ourselves any favours if we try to dress up the truth or downplay the reality of a situation. The challenge is to have courage knowing the reality and being ready to tackle it.