to be clear

“You said my mother’s kidney function was stable and she didn’t need to come back for two months, but someone called the other day and said her kidneys were really bad and that she’d need a kidney transplant,” the email accused. “So which is it?” it went on to demand.

Both, I replied.

I know many who became doctors because they wanted to “help people” and, truth be told, because they are fascinated by all the weird things that can go wrong with the human body. The teratoma, a tumor with hair, teeth, and sometimes even limbs growing in it, comes to mind. But I don’t know anyone who went into medicine to give bad news and upset people on a daily basis.

Yet this is where many of us end up—making people cry for a living. It kind of wears on you after a while. Which is why we tend to choose words that are technically the truth, hopeful even, but perhaps not very clear. Words like “stable.”

“Stable” is a word doctors use in an attempt to reassure the patient that although this is a shitty situation, at least it hasn’t gotten shittier since the last time we checked.

At the same time it seems the patient is interpreting “stable” to mean things aren’t so shitty after all. Things are OK. Good even.

So, no, “stable” is not good, it’s just not worse, I reply to the alarmed daughter’s email. Your mother has advanced chronic kidney disease and we need to seriously start thinking about what we will do when her kidneys completely fail. When not if, because her kidneys will fail completely—unless something else kills her first.

I feel like I’m fanning away the air freshener “stable” left behind as I smack down the fingers they were using to pinch their nostrils shut. This stinks, I know.