Of Pope Joan, Edamame, Lily Tomlin and Cynicism

Had lunch yesterday with my friend Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of Pope Joan. (editorial opinion — if you enjoy historical fiction, and you’re interested in a novel that is fast moving, can’t-put-it-down, based on real history — yes, of a female pope — which focuses on love, war, politics, family and plenty of mystery — then get yourself a copy ASAP!) But I digress…

Donna and I enjoy our too-infrequent get-togethers when we catch up on every topic imaginable from our work, to our daughters, to our past history when we worked together at a local college, to travel (she thinks nothing of jetting to Europe to meet with movie directors; I lament my six hour layover in Charlotte during my flight from Florida) to our philosophies of life.

Donna gives me advice on writing, publishing, networking. We try to solve business problems, personal problems — and mostly we laugh! It’s a long standing friendship that we both enjoy.

Yesterday, as we snacked on edamame, part of our conversation turned to my concern that my work as a patient’s advocate has turned me into a cynic. It bothers me more than you can imagine. It’s never been my nature to be cynical; yet, the stories I hear, the articles I read, the research I do — they demand it.

Each week I hear from patients with problems to solve — and they aren’t problems with the medical side of their health. Rather they are challenges that revolve around consumerism, safety or communication issues. From “how can I get my doctor to listen to me?” to “my health insurance company won’t reimburse the doctor for this test I was given” to “my mother contracted MRSA while she was in the hospital” to “I found a doctor who says he can cure my incurable cancer — should I trust him?”

It’s rare that I provide direct answers; rather, I try to provide a perspective so the patient can answer it himself. It’s that “teach a man to fish” approach — he’ll have the ability to solve those kinds of challenges in the future.

But when taken as a group, and in order to help patients, I have had to learn to read between the lines, to play devil’s advocate, to question everything. Like most of you, I grew up trusting everything I knew about medicine and doctors. Now, based on my own misdiagnosis, then three years of hearing frustration and fear in the voices and letters of patients — that’s no longer true.

I have developed what I call my “cynical crust.” It’s uncomfortable for this forever pollyanna. But it has become a tool, a constriction, a protective coat, and a necessary evil.

So you can imagine how good it was to discuss this newly-developed cynical approach to life with Donna, who always provides intelligent perspective. From the brow furrows of cynicism to the lines of laughter, she referred me to Lily Tomlin.

“No matter how cynical I get, it’s impossible to keep up.”

Well — OK — if it was good enough for Lily Tomlin, and my friend Donna keeps that quote tucked away to be called out when she needs it — then I think I can survive it, too.

And it truly does become a lesson for all patients. Sometimes, to advocate most effectively for ourselves, we need to look at our circumstances with the eye of the devil’s advocate. When something becomes difficult, when something doesn’t meet our expectations, when something seems a bit out of kilter — there is probably an underlying reason for it.

You’re welcome to borrow my cynical crust. It may help you figure it all out.

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