“How many children do you have?” were the first words the doctor said when I arrived at the hospital. My son was in a devastating car accident. He had just been taken from the ER to a room where they were cleaning his wounds and running tests. A social worker ushered me to a private room. Soon the doctor came and asked about any other children. I had none. He explained my son had only ‘brain stem level’ functioning. They were testing to see if he had a gag reflex or if his eyes dilated. And he left.
He didn’t explain brain stem activity or why gag reflex and dilated eyes mattered. I knew the injuries were grave. But I did not know how grave. Was it possible surgery could save him? Would he recover or be paralyzed? I should have known ‘brain stem’ but was uncertain.
I admit I probably did not hear or absorb everything he said. Miles was 13. I was in shock. He had gone out with a group of boys. There was an accident. Yet the doctor’s abrupt manner made him seem my adversary. Only once did he sit or look me in the eye. He came in, checked the monitors, made comments and left. He gave no clear path or choices.
I don’t blame that doctor for not saving my son. It was not possible. What remains with me to this day, however, was his behavior—abrupt and apparently indifferent. I wanted him to level with me, but I also wanted some signal of some personal concern.
I contrast that experience with the care I received after my major stroke. I was barely breathing. No one expected me to live. I went from ER, to ICU to Neurology. No one gave up on me. I have fleeting memory flashes before taken to the Rehabilitation Unit a week later. But, I do distinctly remember people tending to me. Even semi-conscious I heard soft voices echoing ‘sorry’ or felt them fluffing a pillow or straightening a sheet. I felt the kindness. Other voices gave encouragement. Held hope. Whispers of progress. It has been two years since my stroke. That care remains vivid. It has been 25 years since my son died, that doctor’s care remains just as vivid.
In Rehab life was tightly organized. I had regular appointments with people who cared about my outcome. Therapists came in. Doctors came in. Nurses came in. They all used my name. They told me what they were doing and why and answered my questions. They told me what I could not do and why.
I was in therapy sessions constantly. Between sessions doctors and therapists stopped by briefly or waved from the hallway. Those brief gestures mattered. They signaled care about my recovery even when they had other patients who were just as sick or even sicker. The personal attention took only brief minutes. Those few minutes made the difference between a caring connection and apparent indifference.
Had my son’s doctor taken even a brief minute or two to make a human connection I would not have seen him as my adversary who thought my son was just another round on the ward. With a connection I would have seen him as my ally. We would have been partners on a journey neither of us would ever choose. Brief minutes is sometimes all it takes. Looking someone in the eye matters. They are human connections. I now know his training probably didn’t include the importance of personally engaging or connecting. Nor did it prepare him for that night either.
Doctors are busy. They are tied to computers, often have 20 minutes with patients to review their records, make decisions and give instructions patients may or may not understand or even know why they matter. Doctors cannot tell patients they too hate the time limits. But even in that brief amount of time, human connection can be made. I know. I had them.
When you’re suddenly in an emergency or receive a staggering diagnosis your life changes. It is as if you are suddenly thrown into a life boat with a man-eating tiger. You don’t know if you’ll survive, if there is safe harbor, where it is, whether you’ll make it or what you must endure to get there.
We can survive these ordeals by realizing both doctor and patient are in this strange boat together. We have a common journey. The health care industry is overwhelming. It’s inundated with formidable language, incomprehensible bills, tsunamis of forms and rules for everyone. All we really have in this strange lifeboat is each other and our simple human connection. Eye contact, a kind word, a smile–all matter. Even briefly sitting and turning from the computer matters. It is personal. It takes only minutes. Those minutes matter. Without them we’re not partners. I had those minutes. I had those doctors. I know they matter.
I know it was not possible for that doctor to save my son. I simply needed some personal connection. Technical skills matter. Yet it is the human connection that is at the core of all healing. No matter what specialty a physician chooses any loss of that human engagement and its elemental connection spells great loss for healer and patient alike. Being caring and accessible remain paramount. It is in the end how we heal.
Kathleen O’Connor (c) March 8, 2016