I Gave Her Words

Woman looking onto bay of water

As a hospital dietitian, I visit patients with a variety of medical conditions. Some of these patients suffer from multiple challenges. On one occasion, I assessed a woman who had reconstructive bowel surgery. Because of the rerouting that took place during the surgery, she needed to change what she would eat after leaving the hospital.

My role is to help these patients navigate a new world of eating. For this patient, she needed to eat a lower fiber diet for a time and consume foods that are easy to digest. There were other foods she needed to avoid or limit.

Making Spaghetti

I approach every diet education situation by first learning more about the patient and getting a baseline understanding of their learning preferences and motivation. This patient was unlike any other, and my approach had to change.

Unfortunately, my patient had suffered from a new stroke just prior to surgery. The effect of a stroke varies widely. For this patient, she suffered with Wernicke’s aphasia. Wernicke’s aphasia for my patient meant she had trouble uttering simple words, and she used incorrect phrases and responses. 

A long road ahead

At the moment, she just wanted to communicate, but she was unable. Complete frustration overtook as random words spilled out. Her mind could think clearly, but the correct words would not come.

It was at that moment that my role shifted. I was no longer there to share diet recommendations.

I was there to listen, not to the words she said, but to the words she couldn’t say.

For a moment, I was unsure of what to do next. So, I took her hand—she had the strength to squeeze it. 

Photo by Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash

The emotions I felt at that moment were of deep sorrow. Sorrow for how I would feel in her same position. That was all I could give her; I could give her words:

“What you are going through is unlike any experience you had before. Being unable to communicate your thoughts and feelings is beyond frustrating. You want to speak, but the words won’t come. The words that come aren’t the right ones. It’s okay to be angry at what you are going through right now.”

As we finished, she had only two words, “thank you.”

Woman looking onto boy of water

For my patient, I don’t know the outcome of her recovery from Wernicke’s aphasia, as often is the case with my discharged patients. I hope she is getting the needed help and is progressing.

That moment still affects me. I cannot imagine living without words. I am a writer, I would be nothing without words.

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