It was already close to the end of the workday in my clinic but there was still a new consult to see. It was the usual – a recent heart attack with diabetes, metabolic syndrome and hypertension. Pardon me, I meant to say – there was a new patient named Mr Lowry with the above-mentioned medical conditions.
I went through the chart quickly – some of the medications could be further optimized, blood pressure could be better controlled, the weight would have to come down. I asked the patient the usual questions – no, no recent chest pain; yes, he can walk for couple of blocks until his knees start hurting; yes, he quit smoking; no, he has not been able to lose weight. Mr Lowry answered the questions readily enough though he did not offer additional information or ask questions.
I asked him to take off his jacket and get on the exam table for a quick physical. As I leaned closer to help him push the T shirt up to listen to his heart, I could see there was writing on the shirt. I could only make out the word “today” as the shirt was riding up on Mr Lowry’s generously sized belly. “What’s written on the shirt?” I asked, curious. I received the first smile of the visit, and Mr Lowry pulled the shirt down so I could see. I DIDN’T WANT TO BE HERE TODAY, the shirt read. As I puzzled, my patient burst out laughing. “This is my hospital shirt”, he explained. “I wear this to all my doctor visits. My wife knows that it needs to be washed every time I have an appointment”.
The smug joke masked a deeper truth – my patient was trying to set his own narrative for his medical appointments. He didn’t want to be “recent non-ST-elevation MI, diabetes, obesity”. He was “Mr Lowry who doesn’t want to be sick”.
There is something freeing in naming the negative emotion. It is now out there and identified. In regards to Mr Lowry, it made it easier for me to find the motivation for lifestyle change – “you need to take your medications, lose weight, etc – so that you don’t have to see me anymore”.
Over the next day, I kept going back to the shirt. Is it somehow more powerful to elicit a negative emotion rather than positive one? Politicians certainly know that fear moves people to vote more than a desire for a positive change. The generic “you should exercise to be healthy” is less motivating than “you should exercise so that you wouldn’t get a heart attack”. It is especially motivating if the heart attack has already happened once – now the fear has teeth. When I ask my patients what is the most important thing I can do to help them, the answer often comes in negatives: “I don’t want to be short of breath”, “I don’t want to be tired after walking 10 steps”, “I don’t want to be in the hospital”, “I don’t like the hospital food”.
Few weeks ago, Mr Herkel was admitted to my hospital service. He was an epitome of a healthy 53-year old – slim, fit, didn’t smoke, exercised regularly. Part of the reason he had kept himself healthy was his bad genetic lottery – most of the men on his father’s side of the family had already had heart attacks or died by his age. And now, when he had developed chest pain that refused to go away, he anxiously checked himself into the emergency room. The type of chest pain he had was not especially worrisome – but due to the significant family history, we did a thorough workup nevertheless. His careful lifestyle had counteracted his genetics – the tests showed no heart disease. Mr Herkel’s relief was palpable. “No offense, doctor,” were his parting words, “but I sure hope I will never have to see you again!”
As for Mr Lowry, I am waiting for him to come back one day with a different T-shirt. The one that says, I DIDN’T NEED TO BE HERE TODAY.
Self-care tip: Sometimes, a powerful negative emotion may be a motivation for positive changes in your life. But you have to name the emotion first and evaluate it. Be smart.
Question: Have you had a negative emotion change your life for the better? Tell us your story.