Risk Communication IRL

13 11 2011

I woke up this morning with an email from my friend EM. The title was a brief “B.”

My best friend D had married B the week before. The wedding was beautiful, and the couple was now spending their honeymoon in Orlando. When I opened the email, I learned that B had “some heart thing, and had to be rushed to the hospital.”

I immediately called D. She sounded worried, and was obviously taking care of many different things to be able to talk to me at length. She told me something about a valve that needed replacing, the aorta, and a fissure. I could go in three different directions from there. Had B had an aneurism? Was there a problem with the mitral valve? I had no idea, and my friend had no time to clear this up.

Risk Comm lesson #1: There is a gap between what the doctor says and what the patient understands. My friend was under stress, and scared, and being addressed in a language that is not her native tongue. I had to remember that there was a gap between what the doctor told her and what she understood, and between what she retained and was able to tell me.

My mom and my friends were asking me what was going on. I had no certain information.

Risk Comm Lesson #2 During a crises, there are many uncertainties, and you can’t get the whole picture until several days later. I told my mom and friends what I knew, and updated them as often as possible. I had to make very clear that I didn’t have the whole picture. It was until a week later that D told me exactly what happened to her husband.

Once the surgery was done, everyone was celebrating.

Risk Comm Lesson #3 Tell the truth, and tell it all…but be mindful of people’s feelings, and keep in mind that a crisis rarely has a clear-cut end.  After the surgery was done, I was talking to my friend M, and filling her in on the events. Should I tell her that what happened was “expected” given B’s pre-existing condition, or would I seem too cold, clinical and uncaring? Should I tell her that leaving the operating room was the beginning of a critical period and that B was certainly not out of the woods yet? I decided to mention the pre-existing condition, but decided not to mention the risks of hemorrhaging or clotting or rejection, opting to say that “now, everything depends on B’s body’s ability to heal.”

I think I did reasonably well….

UPDATE (NOV. 15):

I am happy to report that B is making a fast recovery, and will soon be moved out of the ICU!!!

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