Sunday, May 24, 2009

How do you tell your nine year old son?

How do you tell your nine year old son he'll be having open heart surgery?

Do you tell him the doctors will put him to sleep and then split his sternum, peeling back his rib cage so that they can have an unobstructed view of, and access to, his heart. Do you tell him they'll fill his heart with potassium so that it won't beat and then pack his chest cavity with ice. Do you tell him they'll divert his blood into a machine that will pump it to his body and his brain? Do you tell him the part about slicing open his pericardium and then pushing a surgical ring into the place in his heart where his pulmonary valve was supposed to be? And what do you tell him about the malformed triscuspid valve? Do you tell him they'll use a new procedure to move the leaflets to a new spot in his heart so that they can stop the blood from flowing back into his right ventricle? What do you tell him about the pain of recovery?

If you profess to be a master of communication, and write a blog about communication, shouldn't you know the answers to these questions? Or, do you tell your son as little as possible when he asks you why you will be flying to Boston and visiting Children's Hospital there. Do you say things like, "You'll have a procedure there that will give you a better life, more energy, and the ability to run faster and longer? Or do you tell him something in between? If so, what is the something in between?

How do you say these things, any of them, and not reveal your horrible fear, perhaps in some body language of which you're not even conscious? What words do you choose? Which ones bring the tears to your eyes and how do you avoid them?

When you find yourself in a situation like that, you learn quickly how much you don't know about communication. When you struggle for words to explain the unthinkable, you learn how limited your vocabulary really is. You find that you can't make a coherent sentence. Forget a paragraph. You learn a lot of other things about yourself, as well. You learn, even though it seems trite, that there are some important, and unimportant, things in life. You learn about your emotions, your relationships with your family, your friends, your neighbors, your church, your God, your colleagues, your employer.

You learn that communication can't be reduced to a simple diagram. You learn that communication really does separate us and that it really can bond us. You learn that we must work to communicate successfully, that we must patiently struggle to communicate, particularly by understanding the other person. You learn that lesson, and much more, when you have to tell your nine year old son he'll be having open heart surgery.


  1. Ed,
    First of all congratulations on Nicky's successful surgery. He will grow up to be a strong young man! Excellent post and you have articulated the dilemmas of choice of words in difficult situations be it a personal or a professional situation.

  2. Thoughts and prayers are going out for a very successful surgery and as speedy a recovery as possible with a minimum of twists and turns afterwards. (Thanks Badri for letting me know)

  3. Thank you for your friendship!

  4. Dear Ed,

    I didn't know how to ask you about the surgery, but this post reassures me. God is fair and he/she takes care of his/her children. I wish you and your family all my best through this difficult phase, glad to learn too that everything has passed off well.

    Respectful Regards, Chirantan.