How to talk to sick people

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on June 07, 2017 # Health

For the first time in my life, I find myself surrounded by a goodly number of friends and family who are very ill or have recently passed away. Maybe it’s a Baby Boom phenomena – more people, more sick people – but it’s real. My only brother, pre-Baby Boom by three years, was just diagnosed a few months back with Stage 4 metastatic melanoma. He’s doing great, by the way, courtesy of a new wave of immunotherapy meds.

On the other hand, a dear friend from the 1960’s recently went into the hospital for a simple lung procedure and developed a clot in her carotid artery. It deprived her brain of oxygen before doctors could get it, her brain had died, and she was gone. Also reported: lung cancer, sarcoma, heart disease, pulmonary decay, kidney disorders, a money tree of back, shoulder, and knee surgeries -- I need to start buying get-well cards in bulk.

Visiting these wounded friends, I began to realize that by being in a wheelchair, and the perception that I have suffered and survived, I could bring a small amount of solace to their own struggle. I can serve as a sympathetic ear or maybe someone who can pass on a tip or two about life after trauma. That probably applies to you, too. These people have just entered what Susan Sontag, in her famous essay, “Illness as Metaphor,” called “The Kingdom of the Sick.” You’ve been there for a while. You been around the block. You must know something.

Did you ever think having paralysis could be useful to someone else? Me, neither.

First, you sound like you know what you’re talking about. The truth is, many people think wheelchair users know a lot more about medicine than they actually do. You mumble a few words like “endarterectomy” or “cellulitis” or bring up a clearly frightening condition like “necrotizing fasciitis,” and they think you’re Harvard trained. It’s kind of like the assumption among Americans that everyone with an English accent must be smart.

You soon move beyond medicine to state of mind. I’m always ready with sage, bumper-sticker advice, the first pearl being: avoid toxic people. I got a call from a distant friend a week after I became paralyzed. He had some version of chronic fatigue syndrome and built his whole life around it. He wanted to drag me down into his hole. “Listen,” he said, “Take it from me. It only gets worse…” I couldn’t hang up fast enough.

A second piece of advice I often pass along is to try not to get caught in an obsessive cycle of ruminating and looking for ways to feel guilty. You may need time to mourn the past (take it), but don’t project fear forward. In medical matters, wait until someone who actually went to medical school tells you about your condition. Endlessly churning the worst possible scenarios over in your head can ruin your sleep and most of your waking hours, too. Fend off circular thinking.

The third thing I often make a point of mentioning is simple: “You can do this.” When you are sitting in a chair and say this, it can have a true impact. It doesn’t come off as fake sentiment. Maybe not with every sick friend – some might think you’ve had it easy -- but I’ve now experienced this more than a few times. And the benefits work both ways.

Someone once asked the acclaimed short-story writer, Raymond Carver, what he thought was the main key to a successful writing career. His answer: “Show up.” The same applies, I think, to seeing your paralysis as a door to helping others who are sick and distressed. Show up, let them talk, and tell them what you can tell them. Your presence alone can make a surprising difference in the way they see themselves.

© 2017 Allen Rucker

Purchase Allen's book:

The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.