Thursday, January 15, 2009

Truth and its delivery

Photo: Gary Hershorn/Reuters

Two stories from today, which tie together nicely:

I ate dim sum with two friends of my parents. One, a pediatrician, told me of an early experience she had giving bad news to the family of a child who had died of leukemia. The family, she said, had come to the hospital the day after the child's death, asking to see the child. My lunch companion called over the doctor who had been working with the child and family, asking what on earth was happening. It seems that the doctor had explained everything to the family, offering her condolences. But the family's shock produced such a disbelief that the words of the doctor had been completely erased from memory.

My friend went on to talk about other doctors who knew how to relate to families as they gave bad news, one even crying sometimes as he talked with patients' families. Crying was appropriate in these situations, although textbooks from previous generations might say differently, simply because the emotional cues from the doctor provide a way for family members to wrap their heads around what has happened. Simple words without an appropriate response may not allow family members to really understand what is being said. Denial is a powerful thing.

After lunch, I went to the Art of Participation Exhibit at the SF MOMA, which documents artists' attempts, over the last 5 decades, at involving their audience in their art. We walked by one piece, an inkjet printer with a long trail of paper and words. It sprung into action as we walked, printing a story about a commercial plane crashing into the Hudson River. A commercial plane crashing into the Hudson River?? This had to be some sort of trick, a play on the news and our responses to it, a fabricated and ridiculous story. But no; the reports that it's true. Coming from a printer sitting on a table in an exhibit in the MOMA, I wouldn't believe it.

It's all in the delivery.

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