Over the last few years, I have sometimes been ashamed of my profession's loss of humanism and compassion, its evolving identity as a business and not one of service and altruism .Because I have allowed medicine to play such an important role in my life, I have felt the sting of this shame with the pain of one enduring a staggering marriage. It has left me with the anger of one betrayed by a best friend. It has even imparted the guilt of a parent who allowed life to lead a son or daughter down an errant path.
This also is not something of which I'm proud. Medicine should never have been elevated to the importance of a spouse, child, or even a best friend. But it was, and the pain I felt as my profession evolved was acute and deep.
If you were recently a patient in a large hospital, you know why I've been in pain. Entering a hospital is now a scary proposition. Unless you were going to a hospital for the delivery of a baby, it was never a carnival of laughter and mirth. But now, hospitals are so impersonal and apparently uncaring that's it's difficult to enter their doors without misgivings. We read of mistakes and operational decisions made purely on a bottom line, and when the first face we encounter as we enter a hospital is stern and dour, it's difficult to forget what we've read.
That's why I will long remember the face I encountered as I was taken from an ambulance and brought into the emergency room at St. Catherine in Garden City, Kansas. The face belonged to a young man. It beamed with a smile, and he said, "Welcome to Garden City. Too bad it's in Kansas." Then he laughed.
So did I. It was the first time I'd laughed in a long while. I had allowed a circumstance to get way out of hand. That circumstance threatened my leg. I was in pain. I was also embarrassed. But as I entered the emergency room, I laughed.
St. Catherine has a regional wound center. The center has an excellent reputation. I could have gone west--to Colorado Springs, Pueblo , or Denver. I went to St. Catherine because my personal physicians recommended it--and because it was a much smaller hospital than I'd have found on the eastern slope. I hoped smaller meant friendlier. I was hoping St. Catherine would expunge my memories from three years ago. Three years ago, I had been ill enough to be entirely at the mercy of strangers. I found little mercy in those strangers. That experience creates a unique kind of nightmare. I still have those nightmares.
After spending a week in St. Catherine, after undergoing five surgical procedures in seven days, after enduring forced bed rest for those seven days, I can honestly say this: my nightmares are gone. I placed the well-being of my body and a good part of my soul in the hands St. Catherine employees, and they treated them with compassion and consummate attention to detail. Thank you St. Catherine.
When I use the term St. Catherine, I refer to its employees. The physical plant just opened two new wings of patient rooms, but the excellence of a hospital is no more and no less than the sum of the skills and devotion of those who work within its walls. Those responsible for establishing St Catherine's priorities must be aware of this truth because every single employee I encountered performed his or her job with enthusiasm and joy.
I and imagine your eye rolling and can hear your grunts of doubt. That last statement sounds over the top, doesn't it? It sounds like perhaps ol' Doc Waggoner hit his pain button a bit too often. Sorry folks--even when I was sweating with pain and ready to cut loose with a string of profanity laced anger aimed at my foot, a part of me sat back and noticed how those around me maintained their professionalism.
The transporters warned me of upcoming bumps every time we approached them. The CNAs working the OR waiting area slapped warmed blankets over me before my teeth ever chattered. If I had to wait for something, my wait was acknowledged, not ignored.
I didn't have to wait very often.
The scale of ten was used to check my pain, but it was used within a context of someone actually caring. "How are you doing? How's your pain? Can you measure it one to ten?" If I answered the first question, "Miserably. I'm really hurting?" no one asked the second question. I guess someone at St. Catherine has been wise enough to know that deciding between a 9.5 and 10 is unnecessary.
Here is another statement you may find over the top. The only phrase I can think of when describing the RNs and LPNs is "angels of mercy." Sorry folks. I'm forced to use that hackneyed euphemism because it is right on.
For one whose existence centers on health care, St. Catherine was a re-affirmation that there is a medical community that still values the simple virtues of dedication, compassion, pride in work, attention to detail, and appropriate prioritization.
Now, when I think of nurses, I no longer think of ways to evaluate whether my nurse was going to place me at risk through inattention. There was never inattention. Smiles were genuine. There was even some laughter at my awful jokes. Listening was acute. I never found myself screaming, "Nurse, I said my urinal is FULL!" while frantically looking for a close at hand dumping ground.
Now, when I think of a regional hospital with modern operating rooms, barometric treatment units, and a very aggressive treatment program, I can think of a subspecialist who took the time to listen to me, a doctor who treated another doctor--not with any special attention--but with attention ...and a firm but gentle hand. At no time did Dr. Joanne Rink leave me feeling embarrassed. She made it quite clear that she intended to protect me from me but she also showed respect for my identity as a human being.
How rare is that enlightenment.
How rare indeed.
Dr. Waggoner is a family practice specialist at Cheyenne Wells, Colorado and the Kit Carson Clinic. His column appears on Fridays in The Lamar Ledger.
Story courtesy Lamar Ledger