I’ve spent a lot of hours this week in hospitals, waiting and worrying. My husband had out-patient surgery on Monday at a large, famous teaching hospital. My mom had surgery on Wednesday at a small country hospital. The contrast was striking. The big hospital lived up to its stellar reputation. Everyone there was caring to the max. The small hospital, not so much.
Part of me expected it to be the other way. I really wanted the country hospital to be more personal and sensitive to the needs of patients and their families. Sadly, over the days that my mom spent there, I only spoke to the surgeon on the phone, and I never met or spoke to another doctor, not in the Emergency Room or on the floor where her room was. So, as I thought over the experience today, I realized that I actually never was face to face with a doctor the entire time that she was in the hospital.
There were only about eight patients on the whole floor of the little hospital and lots of empty rooms. Nonetheless, the nurse assigned to my mom was too busy to return my phone calls and only came in once in all the times that I was there visiting her. When my mom was allowed to eat, it took me over two hours to get a tray delivered to her room. There she was, almost 100 years old, with needles and tubes in her hands, and no way to feed herself. It was a liquid diet, only a Styrofoam cup of hot water, a packet of powdered chicken broth and a small container of strawberry jello. After I gave it to her very slowly using a small plastic spoon, the nurse finally showed up and thanked me for helping her since she was “so busy” that she didn’t have time to do it.
At the big teaching hospital, each person we encountered was fully engaged in trying to make sure that we were having all our needs met. The waiting room for the families had little alcoves with sofas and comfy armchairs so that groups who were waiting could sit together in privacy. Attendants came around with pillows and blankets for anyone who wanted to lie down and rest. They remembered our names and were cheerful and helpful. There was fresh coffee, yogurt and muffins. Each family received one of those pagers that are used in restaurants while you wait for tables. When it buzzed and lit up, you went to the desk, and they gave you an update on the patient. There was a computer screen where you could check at any time on the status of the patient. After my husband was out of surgery, they came over every half hour to let me know how he was doing in recovery and when I would be able to see him. It was all part of the routine, but the focus was on kindness and concern for the well-being of not just the patient, but the anxious people who waited for their loved ones.
So what did I learn from these two experiences? In the small hospital, there were lots of signs and slogans about how much they care, but not enough evidence of it. In the teaching hospital, caring was taken as a given. They felt no need to toot any horns about how great a job they were doing at caring. It was an inherent part of their culture.
As I waited, I forced myself to consider the worst outcome -- how my life would be if my husband or my mother were gone. I felt their love and contemplated how they both gave me so much and made my existence better. I imagined myself in their situations and made a vow to stay acutely aware of how they were feeling and try to make things be as good as possible for them. I’m learning when to be patient, give it a few more minutes, take a deep breath and when to make enough noise to get even the smallest problem taken care of before it becomes a big deal. There's really not much more that I can do for either of them. For the person in the hospital bed, helpless, frustrated, scared or uncomfortable, having someone watching out for their best interests is the greatest gift they can get, and I will do everything in my power to give it to them.