Many years ago one of our children brought home a canvas he had decorated in his school art class. He had filled the entire canvas with the word words. As a surgeon what immediately struck me was that you can kill or cure with a sword, or scalpel. But that you could also kill or cure with words when wordswordswords become swordswordswords. Physicians are not taught how to communicate with patients and due to their fear of being sued tell people all of the adverse side effects of therapy and never mention the benefits. Every time I hear a TV commercial mentioning how the pill being advertised can kill you I wonder why anyone would try it.
I began to realize how important a patient’s beliefs were from my experience and their experience and not their diagnosis. In a sense it is summed up by Dr. Milton Erickson writing in a patient’s chart and then excusing himself and stepping out of the office for a minute. When the patient peaked at the chart she saw, “Doing well” written there. How therapeutic.
I also learned to ask people how they would describe what they were experiencing versus their diagnosis. Then I would ask how and what in their lives fit those words if they were negative words. The words they would share, like pressure describing her pain, or failure her cancer experience led me to helping them eliminate the pressure in their life and what made them feel like a failure.
One day, prior to performing minor surgery in my office, the patient and I got into an intense and interesting discussion. I picked up the scalpel while we were talking and made an incision. I noticed my nurse waving frantically at me. When she caught my attention she pointed at the syringe containing the local anesthetic which I had not used. I asked the patient how he was feeling and he was fine so I completed the surgery and then told him we were both hypnotized and that I had not used any local anesthetic to numb the area of surgery. Major surgery has been done under hypnosis and I have used hypnotherapists in the operating room too.
As I learned the power of words I began to pay more attention to what was said in the operating room. Simple things like changing an injection from feeling like a bee sting to a mosquito bite. When an anesthesiologist talked to the patient about their “going out” I would ask the patient, “When was the last time you went out on a date.” I also played music in the O.R. decades ago and was considered an explosion hazard but when everyone felt better the staff stopped complaining. Today we have studies verifying the benefits of music in shortening the time of the surgery, requiring fewer drugs and patients experiencing less pain.
During surgery I would ask my patients not to bleed and divert the blood away from the area of surgery. I was not a normal surgeon but no one is against success so if it worked it became hospital policy for which I received no credit. Before they awakened from surgery I would say, “You will wake up comfortable, thirsty and hungry.” I had to change that to “but you won’t finish what is on your plate” when my patients all began to gain weight. I couldn’t get the administrators to use the TV in patients’ rooms to prepare them for surgery with guided imagery.
But what really opened my mind to the power of words was my experience as a pediatric surgeon. To reassure children that they would not be in pain while they were undergoing surgery I would tell them while in the emergency room, “You will go to sleep when you go into the operating room.” I was shocked to have children fall asleep while they were being wheeled into the O.R. on their stretcher. One boy flipped over and went to sleep as we entered the O.R. When I turned him over for his appendectomy he awakened and said, “You told me I would go to sleep and I sleep on my stomach.” We reached a compromise.
Then I began deceiving more kids into health by rubbing them with an alcohol sponge, prior to drawing blood, and saying this will numb your skin. A third had total anesthesia while the others all had a less emotional experience and told me it didn’t work. I apologized and blamed the defective alcohol sponge.
Labeling vitamin pills, with the parent’s cooperation, reduced side effects of chemotherapy and other treatments. We relabeled the vitamins as anti-nausea, or hair growing or pain pills and the kids responded because of the faith they had in their authority figures. One woman I know was feeling nauseated after her chemo. She asked her daughter to get her a Compazine pill since she wasn’t wearing her glasses. Her daughter gave her the pill and she felt fine. Hours later, while wearing her glasses, she asked for another pill. When she saw it she told her daughter, “That’s not my Compazine that’s my anti-coagulant Coumadin.” “Well Mom it worked fine the last time I gave it you.” They both were impressed and enjoyed the experience.
The most dramatic experience I learned about came from my experience as well as medical errors due to technical mistakes. One of my patients had no side effects to radiation and the radiation therapist thought his machine was malfunctioning until he saw my name in her chart and then realized, “This is one of Siegel’s crazy patients.” When he asked her why she had no side effects she said, “I get out of the way and let it go to my tumor.”
The examples which I found to be more impressive were when people who thought they were receiving chemotherapy were not due to an error preparing the medication and people who thought they were being radiated were not due to no radioactive material being replaced after the machine was repaired. The doctors involved felt terrible. The radiation therapy doctor said to me he had not treated anyone for a month and just discovered the problem when the radiation therapy machine underwent its monthly inspection.
I told him he didn’t realize what he was telling me. He repeated how terrible he felt. I said, “You’d have to be an idiot to not know you weren’t treating anyone. So you obviously had people experiencing side effects and shrinking tumors.” His eyes bulged and he said, “Oh my God you’re right.”
So believe in the mind-body unity and words. Our body responds to our beliefs. Love your life and your body and amazing things can happen. As I learned about the power of words they became my therapeutic tools. With paradox and humor I was able to readjust people’s thoughts and feelings.
For more healing words from Dr. Bernie Siegel, go to www.berniesiegelmd.com