What's Your Story?
Throughout my life, I was taught to learn from every situation and apply those lessons to help others more effectively. These past few months have been some of the most difficult of my life and have challenged me in ways I’ve never experienced. Working in healthcare, I have had the opportunity to walk alongside thousands of patients, and I am often asked the question if I’ve ever been injured or had to go through physical therapy. What people are really asking is, “Do you understand what I’m going through?” or even deeper, “Do you understand me?” I’ve always thought that I could empathize well with people, but the truth of the matter is, I’ve lived a very charmed life with very few bumps and bruises along the way, and though I put my best effort into this, nothing compares to the lessons learned through experience.
Last week I received a phone call from my sister who told me that I should get out to California as soon as possible. You see, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in December and, despite radiation and chemo therapy, her cancer continued to wage war in her body and had spread to her low back, and she was placed on hospice care as of last Tuesday. My wife and I got onto a plane the next morning to be with my family and really, for the first time, I was on the receiving end of the healthcare “transaction.” Each day we met a new nurse who would take care of my mom for their twelve-hour shift, and each gave me a chance to see how other healthcare providers interact and care for their patients. I’ve seen how other healthcare providers interact with their patients before but there’s something unique about that person being your mother. We also saw MDs, Social Workers, Hospice staff and many others. The whole experience was eye opening.
This past week also opened my eyes to see the world at large in a different way. My Dad and I had to go to AAA to take care of car registrations. As we sat there with our best “everything is ok” face, we talked of pain, frustrations, longings, fears, and hope. Despite the tears that had just been flowing, we looked to the world around us as though everything was “ok.” It dawned on us that we had no idea what the other “stories” were in that room… What other pain, grief, difficulty, hopes and dreams were represented in just that room that we had no idea about? How did those unknown feelings effect our interactions with one another?
This all got me thinking about the daily opportunities I have with patients. As a physical therapist my patients generally come in with shoulder, knee, hip, ankle or back “pain” but what more is there to each of their stories? Who am I actually interacting with and what hopes, fears, griefs, difficulties and worries are also under the surface that are affecting the “reason” they are seeing me?
To other healthcare providers reading this: we have to stop thinking of interactions with our patients as primarily transactional in nature. People are far too complex for us to treat them that way. We have so much potential to benefit and walk alongside people through their toughest times, the times that probably go much deeper than just the diagnosis they’ve been labeled with. Listen to what they’re saying, feel the hurt that’s behind the comments, and take time to build a relationship of trust and empathy. Knowing my mom the way I do, I was able to sense the story behind the words that she was speaking and realized that often the words were only a fraction of what was going on. You may think, “well that’s your mom, of course you know her that well,” but there were several nurses that demonstrated the ability to listen and go beyond just asking a “number out of 10” for pain and did it spending very little extra time in comparison to the others. They were the ones who sat at the foot of her bed silently, not thinking of what they were going to respond with but actually listening. Listening to words but hearing the actual story…the story of the fear that she has, the uncertainty of what was and is to come, and the love she has for her family. The story behind the words is who she really is and the “interventions” we provide to people needs to be geared towards that person.
To patients: finding a healthcare provider who is willing to listen to you and get to know the real you can be difficult, but it is not impossible. Because health goes beyond the absence of pain, injury, and illness, having someone who is willing to listen to you is essential in providing effective care. You have stories that need to be told, fears that need to be heard, and a personality that needs to be understood because that matters for your health, because you matter.
You can call me ideological for believing that we can still provide this type of care in the current health care system but I believe people matter enough to at least try.