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Speaking to doctors

Image credit — Google Images/CDC

I lightly tapped at my bag, observing the hills from the window of the doctor’s room. Dad was seated next to me, quiet without any expression on his face. My brother was standing behind, holding the latest MRI scans. As the doctor finished his task at hand, he began reading the MRI report. My silent tapping briefly stopped, resuming almost instantly. He then asked for the scans and began observing them. My anxiety now shifted towards a table calendar. I began reading the description of India’s first woman IPS officer, Kiran Bedi, to distract myself from staring at the films in the doctor’s hands. There were six of them, and he pressed his eyes closely on each, then moving them to his desktop to observe the older scans.

This process continued for a time that to me seemed endless, but in reality lasted close to ten minutes. By then, I had read the table calendar contents, noticed the design of the room, seen the books on the doctor’s shelf, memorised the typing speed of his junior resident, counted the number of hills visible from the window, and thought of the million questions that I might ask the doctor. He finally turned to his prescription page, wrote down ‘partial decrease in tumour’ and advised further chemotherapy.

I looked at him, framed the first question in my mind, and said it out loud, “so another eight weeks?” “Yes,” he replied. “The disease is stable as of now, and further ahead we hope to keep it that way. So we will continue with the chemo regime.” “But he’s been feeling quite lethargic lately,” I pipped. “Well, we could reduce the dosage of the other drug to decrease the toxicity, so the effects of it are lesser on him,” he replied. “Umm, what about drug sensitivity tests? Any additional multi vitamins would help? Any changes to the diet?”, my questions kept rushing out, and so did the dissatisfaction of maybe missing out some of them. The doctor patiently replied, giving me answers, some of which I had predicted. The session lasted around twenty minutes, and we were out of the room.

I have always considered the ability to speak to doctors as a talent. Through the years, Dad has visited multiple oncologists, and every time, we’ve had a different experience in terms of consultations. There are various categories of doctors. Some doctors are very senior, talk minimal but intensely, and are very reassuring. Some are new, excited and friendly; and approaching them becomes easy. While, some seem tired, having become part of a healthcare machinery, and mostly provide answers robotically. You don’t really feel a sense of connection with them.

Nonetheless, the challenge always lies in presenting one’s doubts in concise and clear manner, and understand the answers in the same way.

Being an adult, does not necessarily equip us with the ability to speak to doctors, without any glitch. Sometimes, you’ll forget; sometimes, you’ll choke; sometimes, you’ll be nervous; sometimes, you’ll be scared; but most times, you will manage. You will learn. You will take lessons from previous experiences and incorporate them in the future ones. You will observe other patients and take cues. As you’ll sit in the OPDs look around the numerous families, a prevailing sense of normalcy will fall, even if momentarily. And regular meetings with the same doctor, will somehow build a connection between the two of you, regardless of which category he/she falls in.

Being an anxious person, I’ve had my share of experiences while being with Dad as he would meet cancer specialists. And through those, I’ve prepared a set of rules to follow to get maximum clarity during consultations while keeping your cool.

  1. Prepare a set of questions beforehand : It is vital to memorise the most important doubts that you want to get cleared by the doctor. Whether they are two or ten, if you have them prepared, you are most likely to get them answered. Often, a few questions will get answered through the conversation that you build with the initial ones. I type out most questions on my phone, and take a cursory look before each appointment.
  2. Discuss those questions with the patient : Always cross-check those questions with your patient, as you can add or delete as per the patient’s health. Incorporating the patient’s advise enables the doctor to better map out answers. At the same time, it comforts the patient to know exactly what is the treatment ahead. I make sure to have a discussion with Dad before any appointment to be on the same page with him.
  3. Do your research on the doctor : If meeting a new doctor, always do his/her background check. This includes, their education, experience, expertise and current research (if any). Doing this, gives a decent picture on the ability and expectation that you can have from the doctor. Perhaps, if the doctor has been involved in something interesting in their field, you can build a conversation around that to develop a good relationship.
  4. Do not shy away from asking questions : I have learnt this the hard way, but it is pointless to be embarrassed for asking too many questions. Even after doing your homework, consultations can lead to new trajectories. A new diagnosis or a different line of treatment, consultations are bound to surprise you sometimes. This in turn means new questions. As difficult as it can get, it is okay to ask them. And it is vital to get some details clarified. Like, understanding the medical terms on pathological reports, spelling of the new drug (so you can do your research), the side effects, emergency drugs needed, etc. Your doctor owes that to you and your patient.
  5. Respect the doctor and the time : Anyone who has been to any doctor’s appointment, understands the importance waiting time. Usually in OPDs, the waiting time lasts somewhere between 30–60 minutes on average, as a crowd of patients awaits. Once inside the room, it thereby becomes important to use the consultation time well. Begin with a warm hello. (Dad always does that). Then, be prepared with questions, carry all the medical reports, stay attentive and above all, stay perceptive. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, and most doctors understand that.

As our meeting ended with the doctor, we walked through the corridor, quietly and patiently. Entering the elevator, Dad put his arm around my shoulders. “You don’t ask all the questions to the doctor,” he said. I look up to him, “Well, I have you to remind me of the ones I forget,” I gently add. He shrugs. This is my moment of change, perhaps. Accepting my anxiety and moving forward. To be even more forefront about asking questions, the next time.

Hi, I’m Mariyam, thank you for reading my post. This is part of my series on finding positivity and decoding the ‘be positive’ attitude as my father fights through aggressive oral cancer.

If you liked it, you can read other posts on

You can also follow me on twitter @MariyamRaza for more. Much love 🙂

Mariyam Raza Haider

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A journalist by training, Mariyam Haider is a writer and performance poet in Singapore.
She is the researcher of the book The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age written by James Crabtree.
Her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Livemint, Feminism In India, New Asian Writing and Kitaab.

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