Every single one of us comes bawling and squirming into the world all bloody and gooey. There is nothing gentle or neat and clean about delivery, and certainly the same can be said about death. We are all equals at the beginning and the end of life. It is what happens in between that changes us. That is when some begin to believe that equality ends and they have risen above the rest of humanity.
Every one of us, whether we are men, women, smart, average, rich, poor, well or sick, are basically the same organism. We all cry, hurt, get zits, bleed, defecate, laugh, cough, and breath. This is a short list of what we do as human organisms. The things that make us different from each other is how we think and learn and what we choose to do with the lives that our mothers gave us, and how we treat other human beings.
No matter what we choose to do with our lives, we all have to struggle, learn, make friends, work, and best of all, love. As imperfectly perfect as human beings are, we are nothing without love.
This is what is missing in healthcare. I am not talking about the marrying kind of love…the kind that often ends up producing new lives. I am talking about the kind of love that is for mankind in general. Compassion, understanding, caring, listening, patience, touch….that kind of love belongs in healthcare relationships between patients and professional caregivers. That is the “calling” that I had as a nurse and that so many of my colleagues had as well. We went into nursing to care for people and help them to get healthy and when that was impossible to gently guide them to death. We didn’t go into nursing to become bitchy cynical old crabs. Sadly, too many nurses and other providers end up that way. The system beats the love out of them and doesn’t allow time for it. There is no check box on the EMR for touching, or hand holding or spending time with a grieving family. Therefore it is not a billable moment.
I want to share a few personal healthcare love stories.
In 1969 when I was about 19 years old, I did my maternity and nursery nurses training. 3 weeks before I started nursing school in 1967, my baby brother Jamie was born. I never felt very maternal before that. I did a lot of babysitting as a teen, but I had no urge to have my own babies. Jamie changed that. I missed him terribly and he was growing so quickly between my visits home. So, when I met Molly (I am making this name up) I fell in love. She was perfectly perfect, but she only weighed 4lbs and came a little too early. She was the first African American baby or patient I ever cared for. I came from an all white community in Northern Maine, my only exposure to diversity was at intramural basketball games. I held Molly as much as I could. I loved Molly and I cried both happy and sad tears when her Mom and Dad took her home. This was my first awakening that humanity and love is color blind.
A year or so later, I was doing Medical Surgical training. I was assigned to 2 older gentlemen. I was 20, so men in their 60s like I am now, seemed wicked old. One was a sweet Italian man with an accent, who was what we use to call compliant, and polite, and who did everything I asked him to without complaint. I’ll call him Ernie. I don’t remember Ernie’s medical problem so let’s say he had an ulcer…if he didn’t he would get one with his roommate. The second man (I’ll call him Bert) was a prominent Boston attorney, and he was boisterous, bossy, loud, nasty and even belligerent at times. He was an alcoholic and a diabetic. He would refuse to do what he was asked to do…even with a lot of explaining cajoling and nudging. He sneaked chocolates from Ernie and laughed about it. He was basically impossible!!! So, I approached Ernie with caution, but also with professionalism. I repeatedly told him that it was his choice, he could continue to do what he was doing and probably die prematurely, or he could take care of himself and I was there to help him. He figured out that even though I was green and young, that I wouldn’t cowtow to him and guess what….. He loved me! In fact he demanded that I come to his room and draw his blood rather than the lab phlebotomist doing it. I assured him that she was much more skilled at that than I was. Both men turned their health around during that stay. In a very short time, I fell in love with both of them and loved their teasing and joking around. After they were discharged, Ernie’s wife brought a large dish of genuine Italian homemade lasagne to my dorm! This was a token of appreciation and love from Ernie. Then the best of all…both Ernie and Bert came to my graduation. It was a surprise. Bert had lost weight and told me he was sober! He had been since he was discharged. Both of them gave me huge hugs and a nice gift. Their presence at my graduation was the best gift of all! I felt like I had actually made a difference as a nurse, and I will never forget Ernie and Bert.
I have cared for thousands of patients over my career. As an ER nurse, I gained skills at making a human connection with patients very quickly, and I could tell hundreds of stories. At the end of my career, I felt the humanity slipping away… I still loved my patients, but the lack of support and bureaucracy was a weight that I was ready to shed. Arriving at work and finding out that I would be understaffed, yet again was a killer. 12 hour shifts with no meal breaks broke me. In the end, hospital nursing sucked the joy of nursing out of me, I am sad to say.
These are very old stories, but they are important ones. They are about genuine loving connections with human beings, not medical conditions.
I am now starting to be on the receiving end of healthcare. I have been a patient more than I like this past few years. I had anesthesia 3 times last year for needed surgeries. I woke up all 3 times, crying. My caregivers asked me if I was in pain. “No, I said “I am just relieved”. I was also extremely grateful for their skilled and loving attention and for keeping me safe. I have felt that patient/provider connection several times during my experiences. Very special people work in our hospitals and doctors offices. Let’s make the changes we need to so those special people are not broken, like so many of us have been.
Love, like water, is an essential part of our perfectly imperfect human lives and we need to bring it back to healthcare.