No good way to deliver negative test results
September 7, 1999
Not long ago I had my annual physical examination. Most of the tests the blood count, the electrocardiogram, etc. took place in my doctor’s office, or in a medical laboratory in the same building. But the chest X-ray was taken several blocks away, and when I phoned the doctor for the results of the exam, the report on it had not yet arrived. Everything else was fine, but would I call again in a day or two about the chest X-ray?
I did so, and this time a young nurse in the office answered the phone, and told me that the doctor was out. When I asked for the results of the chest X-ray, she put down the phone for a couple of minutes, then came back on the line.
“Mr. Rusher,” she said, “the doctor wants to talk to you personally about that report.”
Well, of course it was possible that she was simply honoring the general rule that doctors like to convey medical information themselves, rather than through proxies. But, considering the circumstances, the implication of her statement was all too clear: There was bad news in that report, and the doctor wanted to break it to me himself.
I asked if she could have the doctor phone me as soon as possible, and she said she would have him paged. I hung up, sat down in my favorite leather armchair, and reflected on what I had been told.
What could the bad news be? Almost certainly, the doctor would say that the X-ray revealed some sort of spot, or lesion, or blur, on one of my lungs. No doubt he would try to soften the blow: It might be cancer, but then again it might not. There would have to be more X-rays, more tests, perhaps exploratory surgery. There was no need for premature alarm, but of course we would have to pursue the matter. I knew the odds, though, and knew that they were heavily against me.
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I sat there for the better part of an hour, digesting the news. Interestingly, I felt no panic; I was, after all, 75 years old, and had led a long, interesting and largely happy life. If it was to end with lung cancer well, it would be ending one way or another fairly soon anyhow. I just hoped the end-game wouldn’t be too painful, or too protracted. I wondered if my habit of smoking one cigar a day, after lunch, was the cause. If so, I could feel no regret; those cigars had been a high point of my day, and I had smoked them in full knowledge of their dangers.
I reviewed the plans I had made in anticipation of my death: the disposition of my property, and the deposit of my remaining papers in the collection already held by the Library of Congress. I reviewed the provisions I had made for the individuals and organizations close to me, and was satisfied with them. Spiritually, I felt at peace. Insofar as one can be, I was ready to go.
But now an hour had passed, and the doctor hadn’t called. I phoned his office again, and the same young lady answered. Had she reached him? Not yet. Rather testily, I asked her to page him again, and keep trying that report was important.
Five minutes later, the phone rang. It was the head nurse in the office, to whom the young lady had apparently reported the problem. The head nurse (an old friend of mine) was almost laughing. “Mr. Rusher,” she said, “the report is negative.” Realizing how I must feel, she had overridden the younger woman’s bureaucratic refusal to tell me what the X-ray report said. The news was good after all!
I hung up, and went back to my chair. A feeling of relief and mild exhilaration swept over me. I wasn’t going to die after all not right away, that is, and not necessarily of lung cancer.
All of a sudden the afternoon sun seemed to shine more brightly, and the colors in the room were sharper.
The next day I spoke to the doctor, told him what had happened, and asked him to explain to that young lady the implication necessarily created by her response. Understandably embarrassed, he assured me that he would do so.
But, on further reflection, I think I owe that young lady a debt of gratitude. Someday, before long, the news will really be bad. And when it is, I know how I will react. I’ve been there before. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. William A. Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.)