What Is Unknown Need Not Separate Doctor and Patient…


It ‘Tis the Season’…One of the gifts I received from a friend was a copy of The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed. I’ve been known to ignore the rules of punctuation. My friend had asked me about my “penchant for the ellipses.” The book defines the ellipsis’ function as “indicating omitted words.”

What came to mind was the television series “The Big C”–and an exchange between a doctor and patient on the episode “On Delivering News.” It aired several years ago and starred Laura Linney as a patient diagnosed with cancer and Alan Alda as her oncologist.

The scene opens with the patient in an exam room awaiting results of her most recent scan. She’s participating in a clinical trial—her body language tells us she is preparing herself for bad news.

The door opens and she is quick to read her doctor’s facial expression, “You are smiling—you never smile,” she announces.

“You are among the small percentage of patients whose cancer has responded to the drugs—your tumors are beginning to shrink—some of them have disappeared,” he says.

“WOW!” she exclaims.

“I said Holy,” he admits.

“So I have more time?” she asks.

“This is uncharted territory—these are new drugs—but we have every reason to be optimistic.” Adding, “There is not a period at the end of your sentence anymore.”

“A question mark?” she asks.

“More like an ellipsis. That which we do not know,” the doctor admits, “is greater than what we do know.”

I say that what is unknown need not separate doctor and patient. The “Big C” scene also reminded me of what a patient told me she was looking for from her doctor.

“I am nurse,” the patient explained. “I know the statistics but I want a doctor who will link arms and join me in my all out effort to save my life.”

What did the doctor say?  “I am afraid I will fail you.”

“Are you willing to try?” the patient asked.

“I am,” she said and together they entered into the unknown…