Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Asking the "dumb" question

The other day, a Dad of a new baby asked me, "So what is jaundice, anyway?"

Rewinding the conversation, there I am explaining that because the infant was only 3 days old, we'd need to watch how well he was feeding and whatnot, as his skin was a bit jaundiced.  I explained that it was not uncommon for kids to develop this yellow skin color, that we'd watch it closely, and that everything would probably be just fine.

I pride myself on not being that guy who rips through medical terminology without explaining things, so I am glad this new father asked me about jaundice...since I never explained to him exactly what it was and why it happens in babies.  I tend to speak plainly:  for example, there's no sense in discussing the pathophysiology of asthma in great detail when I can sum it up by describing the passages of the lungs as being tight (like a doughnut instead of a hula hoop) and full of mucus and crap.

Unfortunately, most people either blank when speaking to a medical provider, or they are afraid to ask a question that might sound "dumb."  Many of these same people then rifle through internet sites asking complete strangers what they think the physician meant.  That's NUTS.  I mean, I understand researching medical issues, and you'd have to be cursed with Shaq's free throw percentage to miss a good medical reference online on any given issue, but your doctor (hopefully) is an expert.  He/She's right there in front of you, and knows your specific issues.

In fact, by asking your question, you might enlighten your doc about something.  Didn't consider babesiosis on the list of things that might happen after a tick bite?  Forgot to consider the effect of your birth control pill on the issue at hand?  Neglected to look at your list of drug allergies before prescribing the antibiotic?  Wasn't aware of your family's predisposition towards very early heart attacks?  Didn't know you can't swallow pills?  Truth is, medical providers need your help to help you (odd that Jerry Maguire might apply to medical care).  It's a team sport, and without your help, your doctor is flying the plane with one eye and no arms.

Some parents abashedly ask me," I'm sorry, I have a dumb question."  If a parent has a question, chances are that a metric crapload (new unit of measure attempting to be passed in Europe.  Used to describe a large amount of a thing) of people have asked the same question.  Why?  Because the answer to "how to raise my kids well" is really non-obvious, and no one should feel bad about asking for help.  Parenting is not always natural or intuitive, even though some people make it seem like it is.

Even if the answers were obvious, any one answer might not work for some particular kid.  There's a very good reason why 7,631 different parents might give 7,631 answers on how they disciplined their kids, how they got their kids to sleep, how they fed their kids, how they dealt with night-time nerves...bullying...deaths in the family..."do girls pee standing up, too?"...serious illness of a parent...nose-picking...moving...siblings fighting..."I hate you"...etc.

I love questions.  Generally, I have a list of questions that I have to ask, anyway.  Most parents ask all of my questions, and add to that list the things keeping them awake at night.  If I can subtract some anxiety from the regular amount of parental anxiety, I am doing my job.

Ask.  If you forget to back later!


  1. What a great post! When I first interviewed my pediatrician before the birth of my first child, I asked a lot of questions and ended with "What haven't I asked that I should have?" (which has actually turned into my closing line with him).

    I think you're right that people can feel intimidated by their doctors, but it's really silly if you think about it. I bet your patients and their families love you!

  2. I love your question. It's a great way to make sure your doc is thinking instead of going through the motions. Thanks for posting!


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