Imagine having a symphony orchestra composed of the world’s most
talented musicians, but there’s no conductor at the helm. Or a football
team with no star quarterback to coordinate the other players and bring
out their best. That’s often how it is in medicine, the only team-performed
function in which there’s no leader. You could have the world’s
best physicians overseeing your care, but no quarterback to coordinate
all their good work.
As the patient, you’re always in charge. But it’s a rare patient
who can manage their own care amid the fear and confusion that comes up
when you suddenly learn you have a serious health problem. When that time
comes, you’re going to need a trusted friend or family member to
be your quarterback, someone who can look out for you on this medical
journey and help you partner with your doctors to achieve better outcomes.
If you woke up tomorrow to learn you had a serious illness, who would lead
you through the tough days ahead? Now, while you’re well, is the
best time to make a list of the people you could reliably turn to for
help, and ask one or more of them to be your quarterback.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the qualities that make excellent
quarterbacks. In the best of all worlds, it’s a trusted friend with
a medical background. But I know that most people don’t have a nurse
or physician in their family. And that’s ok. The main three things
you need to be sure of are:
1. This is someone you trust. You’re going to be at your worst, and you may feel vulnerable talking
about your health issues. Be sure that you feel comfortable sharing personal
details with your quarterback.
2. This person is a good communicator. They know how to make friends with the physician’s front-office staff.
They can explain your latest aches and pains and get answers for you when
you’re too sick to speak for yourself. And they should be able to
do it with equal parts assertiveness and compassion.
3. They can commit for the duration of your illness. You don’t know how long you’re going to be sick, but during
this time you’ll be dependent on your helper. You don’t want
your spirits to suffer if that person moves away, backs out or is no longer
While there are plenty of opportunities for loved ones who live far away
to lend a hand, your main support person should live nearby so they can
get you to appointments, prepare your home after a hospital stay and check
on you after treatment. This will become crucial if you’re suddenly
dealing with complications and need immediate medical attention.
If it’s not feasible for one person to take on this role, having
two or more can be a great solution. In my experience, the best quarterback
teams possess three indispensible talents:
1. Methodical Organization. Who is the detail-oriented person in your life? That’s your organization
person. They can help you update your records, manage prescriptions and
take notes at doctor meetings. Lean on them to keep you on track.
2. Research and Data Collection Skills. Do you have a computer-savvy friend? That’s your research and data
person. They can set up Google alerts and emails from the
disease-specific philanthropies to keep you abreast of the latest news on your illness.
3. Emotional Savvy. Who do you turn to when you just need to talk? That’s your emotional
support person. Lean on them when your spirits are flagging.
If there’s one person in your life who has all of these qualities—that’s
an amazing quarterback! But if two or more folks have these traits, that’s
Sometimes people say, “How can I ask anyone to do this? I don’t
want to be a burden on anyone.” But when you’re stressed and
overwhelmed, you have nothing left to give your children, spouse, siblings
and friends—the very people you’ve supported over the years.
Let a friend be a friend. And give them the comfort of knowing that you’ll
be there for them too, if the day comes that they need a quarterback.
Leslie D. Michelson is the author of The Patient’s Playbook
and host of The No-Mistake Zone™ podcast. He is a highly sought-after expert who has spent the last
30 years guiding thousands of people through our complex health care system.