How can we make healthcare more personal?
A simple request engenders tearful emotions illustrating what is just beneath the surface of our work in healthcare. I frequently speak with teams throughout Park Nicollet about the patient and family experience. I open each session by reading a story, Making the Unbearable Bearable, from the book “Privileged Presence.” The story, written by Kenneth Schwartz, describes his 9 month struggle with lung cancer before his death at age 40. The story concludes with the following passages:
If I have learned anything, it is that we never know when, how or whom a serious illness will strike. If and when it does, each one of us wants not simply the best possible care for our body, but for our whole being…
In my new role as a patient, I have learned that medicine is not merely about performing tests or surgeries, or administering drugs. These functions, important as they are, are just the beginning. For as skilled and knowledgeable as my caregivers are, what matters the most is that they have empathized with me in a way that gives me hope and makes me feel like a human being, not just an illness.
Again and again, I have been touched by the smallest kind gestures- a squeeze of my hand, a gentle touch, a reassuring word. In some ways, these quiet acts of humanity have felt more healing than the high-dose radiation and chemotherapy that holds the hope of cure.
After reading the last paragraph, I ask people to silently reflect on a special patient/family experience; perhaps their own experience as a patient or family member or as a professional interacting with patients. After a few minutes of silence, I ask people to share this special experience in groups of 5-7 team members.
This simple request consistently elicits strong emotions. Tears flow as people relate hearing about their own frightening diagnosis or the sudden loss of a loved one or experiencing poignant moments professionally interacting with patients and families. Many of the events occurred years ago yet the vulnerability remains. I recently heard a story from an individual who worked in an Intensive Care Unit years ago. He related the moving account of witnessing a family cradling their child before removing him from life support. The youngster was accidentally hit in the head by a baseball bat.
These sessions generate a tremendous sense of reverence for the depth of emotions just beneath the surface of our work. As we answer phones, check-in patients, dart from room to room or bed to bed, we carry our own strong stories. While we conduct our work with our stories just below the surface, patients and families develop stories with the power to elicit strong emotions well into the future.
Our day to day work would be impossible if we constantly felt the depth of our own stories. Yet these stories, just below the surface, provide a reservoir for compassion for others and passion for our work.
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