When I was 18 and 19, I had five big operations on my legs that kept me in a wheelchair for a few months. A result of too many Breton genes in my genome (in other words, congenital defect, but I prefer the former explanation). My surgeon told me that I would limp for a year before being able to walk properly again. In France, medics are seen as “semi-gods”, so I didn’t really question this. But during my many days, lying still, waiting for the time to pass, I read a book that transformed my life. It was the true story of a 16-year-old postman in Nagasaki in 1945.
He was called Sumiteru and he was on his round when the bomb fell on Nagasaki. When he got up, he saw that people around him had skin falling off their bodies. His bike was all melted into a weird shape. He then realised that he, himself, was in no better shape than the others, so he got himself to the nearest hospital. On seeing a doctor, he was told what had happened and that unfortunately, no-one could do anything for him and that he was expected to die in the next three weeks. That’s when something amazing happened. Aged 16, he decided that it was not for the medics to decide when he was going to die. It was his life and he wanted to live it. He just refused to submit to the prediction. And in 1984, when I read the book, he was still alive.
So, lying there in my hospital bed, I just thought to myself. He is right. I decide what happens to me. And when I eventually re-learnt to walk, I was very careful to do it without limping, however slowly I had to go. I saw my surgeon three weeks later, and he was shocked when he saw me walk with no limp. I don’t believe he learnt anything from it, but for me, that wasn’t the point.
Yesterday in the news, they were talking about a man who was rapidly losing his sight and who was told that he would unfortunately not see his daughter grow up. He now has had his sight restored through gene therapy, and says he is looking forward to seeing his grandchildren.
What is the point of predicting such negative outcomes in life? It closes the door on hope. It’s one thing to accept a diagnosis, but do we really need to accept the prognosis? We all know someone who lived longer than expected with cancer or another terminal disease. Most of us also know people who gave up and left us sooner than expected.
Can’t we leave the door ajar so as to not crush hope? And some medics are really good at doing that, encouraging people with chronic illnesses, pointing at all the things that can be achieved. One of my clients told me such a story in the last few days.
I also came across another story where a 23-year-old was given a horrible prognosis with no hope for improvement. But how we respond to a prognosis is up to us, it’s all in our mind. In the end, we decide who we want to listen to. We decide what we want our life to be like. We may not have a choice over what happens to us, but we can decide how we deal with it.