Hospital words

Copylab welcomes Carmen Reid back to active duty. Fortunately, it’ll take more than a serious illness to keep her down! Read on for more of Carmen’s insights into the way we communicate.

After a 10-day stint at the NHS’s pleasure, I’ve come to the conclusion that hospital language falls into two categories: they’re either understating it, or overcomplicating it.

The understatements kick off on admission, with the battery of blood tests.

‘Sharp scratch’, the junior doctor said every time she stabbed me in the arms, then hands, then wrists – and even feet – in an increasingly desperate attempt to find blood.

‘Sharp scratch’, her colleagues kept on repeating as they joined the vampire-ish hunt for any blueish area that might bleed.

Sharp scratch’ was wearing thin by attempt 12, as the doctors began to sweat and wonder if they were, in fact, dealing with a vein-free alien.

They’d all clearly been trained to say the phrase, but I’m still not sure if it was meant to be a warning, or something reassuring and soothing. Was I supposed to be thinking about playful kittens as they jabbed needles in and painfully rummaged about?


‘Sharp scratch…’

Over the following days, many more understatements were to come and, for most of them, I am truly grateful. Who wants to be told ‘this is going to hurt’ when ‘this can be quite uncomfortable’ is quite warning enough?

However, should a specialist wielding a large needle warn you that ‘some patients can find this quite painful’, demand a half-hour codeine break – immediately.

Looking back, I’m glad no doctor said ‘we have no idea what you’ve got’ but instead offered the soothing ‘we just need to run some tests’, followed by ‘we just need to run some more tests’. There was no ‘we suspect cancer’, just ‘there are a number of things we need to rule out.’

In fact, I had a liver virus and, as the medical staff warned me (still understating it): ‘it’s a pretty nasty illness’. Which didn’t really cover how like death slightly warmed up I was going to feel for the next while.

But when you’re a seriously ill patient, information on an understated, need-to-know basis is probably all you can handle.

If only the makers of medicines realised this.

On the day I was admitted, I listened to an elderly and confused lady try to go through which medications she was on, with one of the doctors.

At first I was surprised at how much she was swallowing: a range of painkillers, tablets for her heart, tablets for her heartburn, laxatives, blood thinners, and several other things.

Then I began to feel slightly outraged that everything had such a complicated name: ‘So Mrs Smith, you’re on the metha-hydroxylated capistoline disulphate as well, is that right?’

She would look blank every time, until he prompted: ‘that’s the one for your stomach’; ‘that’s the one for your heart’; and so on.

It struck me that it might be a lot less complicated if medicines had much more user-friendly names – The Big Ticker, The Mighty Unblocker, Pain Away and so on.

Which then made me think of my day job and how many cumbersome product names the financial industry manages to come up with, when surely we’d all prefer our savings schemes and pension funds to be called far more obvious or even, dare I suggest, inspiring or more whimsical names.

I mean, why have uncrystallised lump sums, or flexi-drawdown pensions? Or guaranteed annuity plans? When we could be tucking our money away in our Better Tomorrow Schemes, Future Funds, or, heck, Beaches and Toyboys?

Carry on Doctor

Laughter: the best medicine?

The financial world, much like a hospital, is starved of humour.

In hospital, everyone strove to be calm and professional, quietly caring, and sometimes even worried on my behalf. But after a whole week of this, I craved people with a sense of humour, and a good laugh.

I heart the colleagues who sent jokey emails, and my family, who had to wear plastic gloves and aprons to visit me, for breaking into a spoof Bake Off routine: ‘Ooooh dear, Paul’s not going to be very happy about this…’

And the gruff, no-nonsense Glaswegian nurse who appeared at 2am to put a fresh cannula into my arm and calmed my nervous breakdown over another vein-related ordeal.

‘Please don’t try this unless you’re really confident…’, I pleaded pathetically.

‘Don’t worry yourself, pal – I’m the best in the hospital’, he said.

A few moments later: job done. A totally solid needle was in place, taped down, timed, dated and signed.

No faffing, no understating, no overcomplicating. Proof that if you’re really good at what you do, you can speak plainly.

Carmen Reid