Patients recovering from surgery or an illness sometimes perceive they’re having setbacks or days when they don’t seem to be improving. Once I’ve determined that no untoward medical event has occurred, I explain progress this way:

The course of recovery from anything is never a straight line upward. [Here I’ll trace on the wall with my forefinger a straight line moving upward at a forty-five-degree angle.] It’s more of a zigzag line with improvement, plateaus, and dips, like this. [I trace a zigzag line upward.] This is normal and can feel discouraging. Instead of seeing if you are getting better day by day, ask yourself, “Am I feeling better than I was a week ago, or two weeks ago or a month ago?” I’m certain the answer will be yes.

For patients who have children or grandchildren, slow improvement can be explained like this:

You don’t see your kids growing every day, but if your parents haven’t seen their grandchildren for several months, they always remark how much they’ve grown. So on a day-by-day basis, you may not see much improvement, but I haven’t seen you in a couple of months, and you are doing much better than last time.