They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
-Carl W. Buechner
He was resting on a cart in the pre-operative area being prepared for his surgery. We had first met at the initial office visit, and I felt that we had made a connection. He looked up at me and smiled. "Did you get a good night's sleep, Doc?"
I pretended that I was trying to control my shaking hand. "Not too bad. I was up most of the night reading about your surgical procedure and weeping uncontrollably."
He laughed. "You kill me, Doc!" "We'll try not to,"
I promised. I stepped closer and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Do you have any questions for me?"
He shook his head and grinned. "Nah. I'm ready. Take good care of me, okay? And keep Betty posted, willya?"
He reached up and patted my hand. "Of course."
Pretty soon, he was wheeled down the corridor to the operating room.
I always assume that patients must have come to some comfort level with me before they would allow me to perform surgery on them. Then I ran across some remarkable writing by poet, author, and farmer Wendell Berry
In a lecture entitled "Health is Membership,"
Berry describes the giant chasm he sees between the healthcare system and its patients.
On the one side, the patientâs side, is the world of love. It is not a perfect world, but it depends on the interconnectedness of family, friends, and community.
On the other side, the healthcare side, is the world of efficiency, machinery, and statistical probability. The patient and the family are "amateurs." The healthcare workers are "professionals."
As Berry writes "... the amateur is divided from the professional by perhaps unbridgeable differences in knowledge and language."
As his brother was undergoing heart surgery, Berry and his family made several observations. "We realized that under the circumstances, we could not be told the truth. We would not know, ever, the worries and surprises that came to the surgeon during his work. We would not know the critical moments or the fears. If the surgeon did any part of his work ineptly or made a mistake, we would not know it. We realized, moreover, that if we were told the truth, we would have no way of knowing that the truth was what it was."
He also notes: "That these two worlds [of patients and caregivers] are so radically divided does not mean that people cannot cross between them. I do not know how an amateur can cross over into the professional world; that does not seem very probable. But that professional people can cross back into the amateur world, I know from much evidence."
We caregivers were, after all, born on the "amateur" side of the chasm, so we should know how to journey back. As for me, I like to think that I am reaching across each time I greet and shake hands with family members and then spend time listening to the stories they share. I try to cross the divide as I wait until patients have exhausted all of their questions.
Still, Berry reminds us that, in a hospital, "the world of love meets the world of efficiency or, rather, these two worlds come together in the hospital but do not meet."
The chasm exists even if we don't pay heed to it and it remains our responsibility, as caregivers, to reach across the divide whenever we can.