Who’s Gonna Undo What?

When I was a kid, our family dentist had a little sign in one of his exam rooms.The doctor cannot undo what the patient will not do

It said “The dentist cannot undo what the patient will not do.”

I don’t think I noticed it until I was a teenager, although it looked rather dusty when I did finally read it.  I wonder if the dentist even noticed it any more.

Stuck in the dental chair, my eyes had no choice but to look at that sign while the dentist worked on my teeth. It cut through my adolescent brain and actually planted a seed of an idea. It got me to thinking that if I had a new cavity, it had everything to do with my bad habits and my bad habits alone. And how frustrated my dentist would be if I did have (yet) another cavity.  After all, he had emphasized the importance of brushing, flossing and avoiding sweets.

That dentist knew he couldn’t hold my hand every night, or shake his finger in my face whenever I ate another Giant SweeTart.  At some point, my dental health was my issue.

Quite a few years later, I realized that it wasn’t just a dentist that that adage applied to.  You could substitute any professional for “dentist.”  So,

“The accountant cannot undo what the client will not do.”  Didn’t save your receipts this year?  What do you expect your accountant to do – pull some numbers out of his magic hat?

“The plumber cannot undo what the customer will not do.”  Put those potato skins down the garbage disposal instead of the trash can (again)? That’ll be $350 for a new one, please.  Plus labor.

“The lawyer cannot undo what the client will not do.”  Dad didn’t fund the trust?  Looks like we go to probate court.

You get the idea.  And, of course, this applies to physicians and their patients as well.

The doctors have the clinical experience, and they have the education.  Patients have the power.

That’s not to say that a patient has the power to cure cancer or prevent an autoimmune condition.  They do, however, have more power than they often give themselves credit for.

If a patient will not stop smoking, there is only so much the doctor can do to alleviate lung issues, heart disease, and all the other nasties smoking brings on.

Knee pain?  Sure, the doctor can prescribe a decent anti-inflammatory, and you’ll probably get some relief.  That shouldn’t let you off the hook for those extra 40 pounds, though, because you’d get even more relief if you lost that extra weight.

Patients: We Do Have Power over How We Behave

Our doctors must get so fed up with patients who, for whatever reason, continue to indulge in behaviors that will most certainly not undo their problems.

Just what makes people indulge in those self-defeating behaviors?  The answers are wide-ranging, and include everything from financial difficulties to lack of language skills to not trusting Big Pharma.  There have been many studies addressing the issue, with no conclusions, no easy answer.

Maybe we think docs have magic wands they can wave over us, making us bullet-proof.  Maybe we think that just because we’re seeing a doctor, we’re good, we’re covered.

Or, more likely we’re just perpetual teenagers – willing to think hey! it’s not an issue today, and tomorrow isn’t coming any time soon.  I’ll worry about it when it hurts.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting my mother, who was feeling light-headed and tired, but didn’t want to bother her doctor. “Well,” says I, “have you been drinking enough water the way Dr. Lynch asked you to?”  Silence.  And my mom’s version of “talk to the hand.”   That meant I was not to remind her of the last time she had become dehydrated – and felt light-headed and tired.

Exasperated sighs are not the sole territory of teenage daughters.  They are well within the realm of middle-age daughters as well.

After rolling my eyes, I gathered up my patience and tried a new tact. I asked her if she remembered the sign in Dr. Steuben’s dental office.  She didn’t, so I told her what it said, and gave her a meaningful look.

“Hmmph” she said.  But she didn’t look away and I could tell she was actually considering that message.  I have to give her credit for thinking things out in a new way, because a few minutes later she went to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water, thinking I wouldn’t notice.  I did, and we set up a reminder system to make sure she would not get dehydrated again.

Not sure how long that particular reminder system stuck, since, after all, it came from one of her kids. Since water bottles with varying amounts of water in them now litter her apartment, she must’ve embraced hydration – most likely because she just wants everyone to shut up already.

My mom has thrown that quote at me when she thinks I’m not doing what the doctor cannot undo.  That last sentence has a whole lot of negatives, but the message is a positive one. Mom loves me.

Even if I roll my eyes, that kind of nag transports me back to Dr. Steuben’s office and reminds me that I do have at least some power over my situation.

If my fingers worked better, I would cross-stitch a sampler with that quote for my physical therapist, since after all, the physical therapist cannot undo what the patient will not do. Maybe a framed iron transfer?

And, then, maybe one for the rheumatologist’s office too.  It just might become a thing.