Compassion is Sometimes Foreign

A while ago, I was at a dinner sponsored by The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Care.  It was a dinner for all of the Patient and Family Advisory Councils of Massachusetts General Hospital.  We have eight of them, and so the room was quite filled with not only patients and families, but with administrators at all levels.

Unknowingly, I was sat next to the moderator who stood at the beginning of dinner, and asked us all to think of a  moment of compassionate care.  Then a runner went around the room with a microphone where people could share their stories.  And all of the stories were good ones, small acts of kindness that at the time made the pain of the moment more bearable.  We all have had those moments.  The truth is, I have a hundred stories of compassionate care, but I had chosen one of my favorite stories, one that truly went above and beyond.  It was the first one I had thought of.

I had no intention of sharing it with the larger group.

But the  moderator, at some point in this discussion, asked the microphone runner to come up to her, and then she looked at me and said, “Darcy, I bet you have one that you can share with the group.”

Busted.

So I stood up, and here is the story I told:

“My daughter, Wendy, was born healthy, but had an infection that shut down the small blood vessels of her body.  She spent over 180 days in the hospital.  At the time we were living in a small Vermont town, but we had to move down to the Boston area to be closer to the hospital, especially once we knew that Wendy needed a kidney transplant.  So once we moved, Wendy’s nephrologist, after Wendy’s [outpatient] appointment was over, looked at me and asked me how Wendy was doing with all of this, how we as a family were doing with all of this.

“I answered that our apartment was fine, transportation to and from the apartment was good, but I was worried because Wendy had no friends.  She couldn’t go to preschool because she was so medically compromised, and she had been in and out of the hospital for so long that she really didn’t have any interaction with any kids at all.

“The doctor looked at me, was silent for a second, and said, ‘I have a daughter.  She’s only a few years older than Wendy.  Let’s have them meet.’

“And so, maybe once a week for a number of weeks, we would meet at the Playground by the Frog Pond in Boston Common, and Wendy would play with Ashley.”

You could hear gasps in the banquet room.  Maybe because this was so unusual, maybe because it was so special. It wasn’t medical, it was emotional.  I wanted Wendy to have a friend in this new place where we lived.  Wendy’s doctor, as a mother, understood exactly what I needed, what Wendy needed.  She needed to feel like a normal kid.

Would it surprise you to know that I was asked to retell that story many times over the next few months?

I’ve been thinking about this doctor a lot lately.  This doctor, who when she goes on vacation, often will come back with a present for Wendy. This doctor who brought a snow globe for Wendy to hold while she got wheeled into the operating room when she was getting her kidney transplant.  This doctor, who when Wendy got air lifted  to the hospital while in heart failure and I couldn’t go on the helicopter with her, this doctor called me on my cell phone and told me not to worry, she would be there to meet the helicopter while Michael and I drove down from Vermont.  This doctor, whom recently when Wendy had an MRI and they told us it would be a week until they let us know (if Wendy had a brain tumor or lesions) went down herself and badgered a radiologist to read it with her, and then called me to tell me it was clear.

This doctor.  This doctor is an immigrant.

She is an Indian woman, Dr. Sharma.  Her accent is incredibly thick and she talks a mile a minute.  Her grammar and syntax are sometimes laughable.  She uses idioms wrong, like instead of saying, “You are between a rock and a hard place,” She would say, “You are between two hard places” and your brain has to figure out what she meant while she plows on with her rapid speech.  This doctor, whom the first time I met on the other side of Wendy’s bed in the PICU spoke so quickly and with such a thick accent I despaired that we were doomed because I hadn’t understood a word she said.

And yet, today, I can’t imagine our lives without her.

Shock waves went out among the medical community this past week with the new travel ban and executive order to build a wall along our southern border.  The truth is, the United States Medical system relies on immigrants.  Hospitals have had to scramble to figure out exactly what they are going to do, because the new President has made it very clear that his “America First” makes all immigrants suspect.  And yet, more than 25% of all physicians in the United States are foreign born.

So is America First just a slogan?  Does it mean America First with fewer immigrants, or does it mean America First with the best medical system in the world?

It seems to me, in a country that was founded on immigration, you need the best minds working on the hardest problems in medicine, in science, in public health.

No matter their country of birth.

 

 

Advertisements

Understanding, But Not Sharing, Despair

I want to get this blog post just right, and yet I’m afraid that I will fail miserably.

But I’m going to try.

I read today about the Short family, a family from Pennsylvania who died of an apparent murder-suicide.  They had a chronically ill kid, a child who had received a heart transplant.  They had been featured in their local newspaper when their daughter Willow received the heart. The story was hopeful, it was upbeat.  There was a future thanks to a generous donor.  People like to think of it as a happy ending, but in reality organ donation is only a beginning.

A year later, the same family was featured in a New York Times article, detailing how hard it is to get the anti-rejection drugs compounded and filled, where it shows a picture of the mom dosing up the medicines, which by the way are the exact same medicines my daughter takes.  We have shared the same terror of worrying that you are going to run out of the medication that is keeping your daughter alive because of some stupid rule made by either the pharmacy or your insurance company.

In fact, up to this point, I know exactly how they feel.  Scared, hopeful, struggling.  There’s not a lot of place in this world for a sick kid.  I’ve said that for so many years now I feel like a broken record.  Not a lot of place, so parents of these kids keep fighting.  Fighting for prescriptions, fighting for 504s or IEPs in school.  Fighting for doctors’ appointments, fighting to be heard by doctors and nurses, by other hospital staff, by pharmacies and insurance companies.  Giving the thumbnail version of your child’s illness to every new person on the phone, every health care worker you meet, every time.

It’s exhausting.

And yet, none of us know what we sign up for as parents, and we have to move forward.  We are not just caregivers, but nurses, social workers, dieticians, pharmacists, and medical managers.  No one is going to do it for us, and no user manuals are included.

There are other kids in the family, kids who might not get as much attention as they deserve because the parents have to deal with the sick kid, the emergency, the crisis.  They are unwitting victims of the tragedy.  That adds pressure, too, the fact that you know you’re not able to be the kind of parent you want to be to all of your kids because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

There are stresses with work, normal stresses, but nothing more stressful than the idea of losing your job, because you need those health insurance benefits more than anything else.  So you make fewer waves even if something might be wrong because you can’t afford to be unemployed.  There are sacrifices you make, as little as sleep or as large as a professional life, in service to the illness and the medical needs of the chronically ill child.

All of these problems contribute to difficulty in a marriage.  You promise to love, honor and cherish when things are at their brightest and the future has all sunshine and rainbows, but stress, bills, worry, and problems are unrelenting.  You are constantly afraid that the delicate balance you’ve constructed will get tipped again with an emergency. You are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Damn, it’s really hard.

The mom in this tragedy blogged about her struggles with PTSD, from dealing with her daughter’s medical issues.  She talked about her survivor’s guilt, knowing that another child died while her child lived.  I can personally attest to that guilt, and have blogged about it before in my piece, Dear Mom of My Daughter’s Kidney Donor.  It is a unique and exquisite combination of gratitude and guilt that parents of kids who have received organs from deceased donors share.

Now there are five dead bodies, six if you include the dog, in a murder-suicide. A family that seemed very public about their struggles, struggles that I share as the parent of a chronically ill kid.  And I feel so many emotions connected to it.  Anger at the futility of it, and anger for the donor family too.  Sadness, a bottomless sadness for the family.  Horrible unrelenting understanding at the dark side of the situation.   Gratitude for the love and support from my family and friends, because through all of the many years now I have never, ever felt alone.

Because the truth is, that while there’s not a lot place in this world for sick kids, there’s not much place in this world for their parents either.  It’s only through the personal connections you have and make that carry you through the hard times.  It’s knowing you’re never alone, that there’s always someone there to listen, laugh with, or help you problem solve.  It’s combating the feeling of isolation with the knowledge that there’s always someone there for you, and you are there in return for them.

Hug the ones you love today and thank them.

My deepest sympathies and condolences to those who knew and loved the Short family.

The National Suicide Prevention 24 Hour Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

 

What If I Don’t Know the Answer?

For a number of years now,  I have had  the honor of speaking to the brand new residents at our hospital.  These are often young doctors who likely graduated from Medical School, top of their class, in May.  I speak to them sometime in the third week of June, giving them enough time to pack all their worldly goods and travel to their placement between graduation and new residency.  They begin seeing patients sometime around July 1st.

A large proportion of these doctors do not have children of their own.  So they are experts on the anatomy and physiology of a child, but not necessarily experts on how to talk to them, or how to talk to their parents.

I get to speak to them on their first full day.   It says a lot about the administration of Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, that on the first day of the new residency, these new doctors speak to parents.  It sets the tone that the hospital is committed to family centered care.  It means that they are serious about good communication between doctors, patients and parents.

Every year, a few of the parents from the Family Advisory Council go together to this rather informal discussion.  We all introduce ourselves by way of our child’s illness.  We are what is known as “frequent fliers” in the hospital world, or kids  who are often in the hospital.

On this day, the first day of residency, we talk about bedside rounding.  As its name implies, bedside rounding occurs around the child’s hospital bed.  Everyone comes in and has the discussion together:  doctors, the child’s nurse, a pharmacist and the family.  The lead resident gives an introduction about the child and and her illness, and then discusses what they have done and what they need to do before discharge can happen. They will often discuss specific lab and test results.  Then they make a plan for the day, ask if there are any questions, and then move on to the next kid.

But it is a very different experience when doctors are talking among themselves and when they are talking to families.  Families haven’t gone to medical school, they don’t know the lingo.  They don’t know that afebrile means that the child doesn’t have a temperature.  They don’t know that emesis is vomiting. They don’t know what the thousands of maddening acronyms mean.  So the residents, who have spent all of this time learning all of these official terms, need to rethink the way that they report when the family is there.

The new doctors also have to deal with the fact that the parents, normally the ones who are in charge of every action and detail of their child’s life, are feeling helpless and scared.  That the child in the bed is also feeling that way, along with being in pain or discomfort.  The terms of the situation make matters worse.  No one is at their party best, so to speak.  Parents deal with this in different ways. Some parents don’t want to know anything technical, they just want the doctors to fix it as soon as possible so they can leave. Some parents want to know everything, down to every acronym and decimal point, so they can figure out what is going on.   Sometimes parents are hostile or sharp with the doctors as a defense mechanism.  Sometimes they burst into tears.  You never know what you’re going to get.

The temptation is to race through the bedside rounding, to cut corners, or to not answer all of the questions that the families have.  After all, these doctors are in charge of multiple children, multiple illnesses, hundreds of balls in the air on any given day.

We, the parents, are there to say that bedside rounding is important, even when it’s uncomfortable, sometimes especially when it’s uncomfortable.  We are a team, all of us, and we all need to be on the same page.

A team relies on trust.

Which brings me to my favorite question, that is asked every year:

“What if I don’t know the answer?”

These new doctors are used to knowing all the answers.  They are used to being the smartest person in any given room. They have encyclopedic memories.  They have been tested and they have been victorious.  But what happens if, for some reason, they are caught off guard and don’t know what the answer is to a question that a parent or a patient asks?

They are afraid that they will look like a fraud.

But who in the world knows all the answers anyway?  That’s not why they are there.  They are there to find the answers. They might not know them all.  And if a team is built upon the mutual trust of the participants, it is up to the doctor to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I will find out and get back to you.”  And the key is to follow through and do that.  They will win the respect of the family if they make that combination of confession and commitment to the truth.

It’s important to say one more thing, and we as parents say this every year too.  When we are all together in the hospital room, we are modelling behavior for our children. We are showing our chronically ill children, who will one day grow up and have to speak to doctors all on their own, how to be empowered to do so.  We are showing them that trust in medicine is important, that integrity is important, that bonds form when everyone is present in the discussion.

It is important to parents of chronically ill children to address the issue, try to fix it, with honesty and integrity, and to model this behavior for our children.  If you think about it, that’s the way life should go, but especially within the confines of a vulnerable situation like a hospital room.  Everyone needs to feel heard, everyone needs to feel respected, and great things can happen.

 

 

 

 

“A Difficult Decision Was Made”

A room full of people, a room full of stories.  That’s what we encountered the other night.  It was the opening ceremony of the Transplant Games in Cleveland, Ohio.  Attended by over 6,000 people from 40 different teams around the country, there were recipients, living donors and donor families, a term given to those who lost loved ones and even in their time of acute grief, decided to donate their loved ones’ organs and tissue.  You can read the open letter I wrote to Wendy’s kidney donor’s mother here.

The emcee for the evening started the event by saying, “We are all here tonight because a difficult decision was made.”  It’s important to get it out there right away, because it was the elephant in the room.  Everyone was there because of a donor.  Now there are living donors, and that is no small feat, someone who willingly gives a piece of themselves, literally, to keep someone else alive.  They are not only honored at the games, but they are invited to compete as well.  More than that, however, are the donor families that need to be honored for their loss.  Lives were cut short, and lives were extended.  Just because it is a celebration of life, hell, the name of the event is the Donate Life American Transplant Games, doesn’t meant that there aren’t hundreds of people hurting because they have lost someone whom they loved. They wore their loved ones on pins, they posted their pictures on placards, they wore necklaces.  I spoke to a woman who told me all about her son who died when he was in his early twenties, and she said to me, “His friends are all getting married and having kids and I miss him every day. Every day it hurts.”  The emotions will always be raw for them, but it helps ( I hope) to have them see that their loved ones helped to extend the lives of so many more.  That’s what the games are all about.

This was the first time we went to the games and I had to really think about what we were going to say about donor families and what “giving life” really means.  Before the opening ceremonies we talked a little with the kids about Wendy’s donor and how he died and how his parents decided to donate his organs, and that it was likely that they were going to hear a lot of those stories tonight.  The stories would be emotional, but they are powerful and important to bear witness to them.  And, of course, we could talk about it after if they had any questions.

But this is hard stuff.  Life is messy.  This topic is something you don’t often talk about, and here we are sitting in a room full of people, an AUDITORIUM of people, talking about it.  When a story came up on the screen about a father who donated his son’s organs after he had an asthma attack, Penny leaned over and said, “This is one of the stories you warned us about, Mom,” as she held my hand.

Here is the thing that goes along with this knowledge, that people died and their organs were donated:  Palpable gratitude.  An auditorium full of grateful people:  recipients and those who love them.  Families and friends.  Whole teams of people who have gotten together to celebrate this extension of life.

And these people are competing and attempting sporting events they might not ever have done before, because they were given a second chance.  I have lots more stories, there will be more blog posts about these games because I’ve learned a lot in the past few days about  community through resilience, about the power of multiple generations coming together, about giving voice to the pain and the grief and the gratitude all at once.  About how your story is just a part of the thousands of other stories, creating a mosaic of meaning.

I’m going to say one more thing before I close.  Register to be an organ donor so that your loved ones don’t have to make the decision.  Over and over again, I heard how much easier it was for them to donate their loved ones’ organs because they knew it was what the person wanted.

Don’t make your loved ones make that decision.  Make it for them, so they can just follow your wishes.

More to follow.

Photo:  The Auditorium at the Donate Life Transplant Games, waiting for everyone to arrive.

Firefighters and Architects

“This will be a new litmus test for your friendships,” he said as we were walking down Cambridge Street. It was a warm summer day, and Mark was his usual affable self.  A friend from college, I remembered that he had the same email address as the doctors at the hospital,  so when I wrote to him, and said, “Hey, do you work at Massachusetts General Hospital?”  he came by the PICU that day and took me out to a bagel shop around the corner from the hospital.  A psychologist by training, he worked at MGH and managed to take us around a little at a time, orienting both Michael and me to the hospital and surrounding area.  He took us to the chapel, the central quad, and the Healing Garden:  a rooftop garden that overlooked the Charles River and had both inside and outside seating.  He brought us a loaf of banana bread that his wife made.  He cracked stupid, softball jokes.  He was just what we needed at the time.

He was right.  Our trauma, the medical trauma of our child, reordered our friendships, reshuffling them like a deck of cards.

There were some people whom we found drifted away.  For whatever reason, they couldn’t handle our trauma with us, whether it was because they had their own more pressing problems, or because they didn’t know what to say or do. Phone calls and emails got fewer and farther apart.    The loss smarted like a sunburn, but we all moved on.

Some people whom we had considered acquaintances, nice people but with whom we didn’t normally hang out, they were a nice surprise because they rose to the occasion, they met us at our lowest place and helped to lift us up.   They helped Wendy, by bringing toys and gifts.  They helped us with food and ideas and cards and hugs.  This was our nicest surprise, and those friendships have survived beyond the initial trauma.

Mostly, though, we found that our friend base, and even our families, fell into two groups:  Firefighters and Architects.

Firefighters rush in. They fix the immediate, broken parts.  They take care of the schedules, the child care, the food, the logistics.  They say, “I’m on it,” and they take care of whatever “it” is with efficiency and without you having to ask again. They are the ones who immediately call. They are there in the trenches with you, helping you to fight the immediate acute battle.  Their actions are their help.

They they retreat when the immediate assault is over.

In move the architects, who rarely are the first to call, but who sit back and wait to see what you will need later.  They are the ones who listen to your problems and offer long term solutions.  Often they are the ones who will tell you the hard truths,  help you make the big life changes,  help you to systematize and reorganize.  They help you to look at the wreckage and begin building again.  They stick around longer.  Their advice is their help.

Let me be clear, you need both of these kinds of people.

Rarely do you have a friend who is both a firefighter and an architect, each person has a  definite strength.  Sometimes a good friend will try really hard to be both, but to be honest, it’s exhausting when you are playing against your strength, and one set of characteristics usually rises up.  We found that often in a couple, one person is the firefighter and one is the architect, which makes sense because they balance each other out.  They are doing the best they can with what they’ve got.  So are you.

Friends and families will get you through the initial trauma, and the after effects.  It won’t be until later when you are looking back that you realize how much they helped.

 

 

Dear Doctor S—-

Dear Doctor S—-

I want to thank you.  Really.   Even though you gave us bad news, I want to thank you for your approach, courtesy, and helpfulness.

Truthfully, we don’t know you well.  Wendy goes to see you once a year, to get new glasses.  We were just there a few months ago.  But in the last month or so, she was having a hard time seeing again, and I thought maybe it was growth or puberty or whatever, and I took her back to you.  I had Penny in tow as it was school vacation week.

You remembered all of us and asked us each questions about work, school, sports, and our town.  You spoke about people we knew in common.  You were ok with Penny playing on the floor of the room while you conducted your exam.  You don’t know how much I appreciated that, most of the time doctors find the extra child to be tiresome at best and a nuisance at worst.  You totally went with the flow of our chaotic life.

You examined Wendy and realized that it wasn’t really her vision that was off, that her prescription didn’t need to change that much, so you looked for more problems.  It turned out that Wendy was seeing double.  You examined her and you asked her good questions.  She had a hard time explaining some things, and you encouraged her by telling her that you know these things are hard to explain, but she was doing a good job and she should keep going and he would ask questions for clarification.  Doctors don’t do this often enough, not only did you engage Wendy, but you encouraged her, and when she didn’t have the right words, you asked thoughtful, non-threatening questions to help her.  Then you let her and Penny go out to pick glasses.

And this is a small thing, but I need to mention it.  Your staff was totally fine with both girls trying on as many glasses as they wanted to, and Penny didn’t even need them.  They let them try on a hundred glasses, or what seemed like it.  They were patient when the girls wanted to try on the crazy cat eye glasses or the pointy square glasses.  Eventually they narrowed Wendy down to five pairs, then three, then two, but they let the girls explore and have fun in the process of finding just the right pair.  No one judged them, no one told them no, no one worried they were going to break something (except perhaps me.)

While the girls tried on their fashion accessories, you told me about your concerns.  Based upon Wendy’s medical history, her medications, and her symptoms,  that I should speak to her specialists immediately, and that I should contact her pediatrician and make an appointment. You answered all my questions.  You continued that I should ask about a neurology consult and that this likely will lead to more tests.  All of these things you did firmly but not in a way to try to scare me.  You just let me know that something was wrong, it was serious, and we needed to look into it.  Then, and this is important, you helped me by telling me EXACTLY how to look into it.

I’ve been doing this a long time now doctor, almost nine years.  I pretty much consider myself a professional hospital parent, and I have to tell you that you did everything right.  Your exam was thorough, you were ok with the extra kid, you validated Wendy and her explanations, you explained your concerns to me, and you helped show me the way to the next step.

I don’t know what the outcome will be, this is a new needle in the haystack of Wendy’s medical conditions, but I want to tell you how much I appreciated our encounter yesterday.

Yours truly,

Darcy Daniels

Snow Day in the Hospital

This unexpected snowy day got me to thinking about a day when Wendy was in the hospital, many years ago.  She had been there for months, literally, and one day in late December there was a heavy snowfall.

Looking from the window of the 17th floor of the Ellison Building at Massachusetts General Hospital, the whole city of Boston looked so clean and amazing.  We were on the river side, and the Longfellow bridge looked like it was topped in cool whip.  Being a child from Vermont, Wendy desperately wanted to go outside, but it just wasn’t a possibility.  She was in heart failure, and we were measuring every ounce of liquid that was going into her.  There was no way we could account for how much snow she would eat, and how much liquid that would be equivalent to.

Wendy was so disappointed, but there wasn’t much we could do as parents.

However, the staff came up with a plan.

The PCA (Patient Care Assistant) went down and got a bowl full of snow.  Wendy’s nurse measured it out, put it on a scale, and slowly let it melt.  They then poured it in a graduated cylinder.  After they figured out how much snow by weight equaled how much water, the PCA went down to the quad again and got Wendy some new, fresh snow.  Can you imagine, a child who has only seen the inside of a  hospital room for months, who only knew the sounds of the machines and the buzzers ,the television, the woosh of the forced air, who only knew the sterility of the meal trays, the plastic covered hospital bed, the stethoscope hanging over her head, getting a bowl of snow?

It is those moments of compassion and spontaneity that we are grateful for, now, looking back.  It’s easy to forget the monotony of the endless days that stretched together during her recovery. But that one moment of brightness, that is one moment that we will never forget. They sustained us then, and they sustain us now.

I was recently reminded of the story when I heard of a similar one on NPR.  The Show is Called “On Being” and it airs on Sunday morning.  One morning in January, I was listening to a man who had tragically lost three limbs through an electrocution accident, and the one thing that brought him comfort in the burn unit was when one of his nurses brought him in a snowball, connecting him back to the real world in profound ways.  I highly recommend taking the time to watch his TED talk which I’ve posted here.   Somewhere in the middle, he tells the story of the snowball.   He now works a as the executive director of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, where the idea is that life still happens even when death looms and it is a combination of compassion and dignity that makes a medical caregiver a healer.

Whether it is called compassion, palliative care, or hospice, the world needs more healing moments.

Photo:  Wendy, the year after the long hospitalization, finally making a big snowman.

 

 

Review: “Miracles from Heaven”

Confession:  I dreaded going to this movie, and I thought I was going to hate it.  Maybe I wanted to hate it, but that was just a product of my own fear.  It was impossible to hate it.  Be warned, there will be spoilers in this review, but if you’ve seen the trailer, then you already know everything there is to know about it.  If you would like to see the trailer, here is the link.

The plot is as follows:  The Beam family are a normal, everyday, God-fearing, southern family.  You like them almost immediately.  Their middle child Annabel comes down with a mysterious, incurable chronic illness that is both difficult and painful.  They go to multiple doctors to get answers, and get nowhere for a really long time.  It tests their marriage and their financial security as well as their faith.  Finally, they find a doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital who can’t cure their daughter, but can give them hope both with his knowledge and his bedside manner.  After multiple trips back and forth from home to Boston,and  lengthy hospital stays, Annabel is still in terrible pain and not much more can be done for her, so they send her home. While she is home her older sister talks her into climbing a big dead tree with her on their property, and when the branch they are sitting on is about to give way, Annabell jumps to a hole in the tree, falls through the trunk all the way down thirty feet, and is unconscious.   Rescue teams recover her and she turns out to be fine.  Better than fine.  She turns out to be cured of her terminal illness.  She tells her parents while she was unconscious that she had an out-of-body experience, met God, and he told her that she was going to have to go back, that she was healed.  The doctors can’t explain it, she is asymptomatic and does not require medication.  It’s a miracle.

There are subplots that I don’t love, like when the good meaning church ladies come to the mother Christy and ask if it was her sin or the sin of her daughter is what is keeping her daughter from getting healed by God.  This causes Christy to stop going to church, and is in fact the exact opposite of what a church community, or any good community is supposed to do:  they are supposed to support each other during the hard times, and what could be harder than having a child with an indescribable, incurable illness?  Casting judgement about a person’s spiritual guilt is a beyond petty, it is downright cruel.

But some parts are right on.  Seeing both the pain of the child, and the pain of the parents was very real.  There was one part where the parent was asked to hold down the child so that the nurse could perform an uncomfortable procedure.  I can’t tell you the amount of times Michael and I had to hold Wendy down for blood draws and IVs, participating in the needed trauma that had to happen.  Also the part about the parents being frustrated with not being able to get answers, and being stopped by hospital policy.  I’ve addressed this in my blog post Courteous Vs. Helpful, where hospital staff can be advocates for the parent or just polite.  Compassion of the staff make all the difference.

Another part that was real was how a child’s illness effects everyone.  The child, of course, to whom these horrible things are happening, but also the rest of the family, their friends, their community.  Everyone gives something up.  In the movie, the father had to sell his motorcycle to pay bills. The older sister misses her tryouts for a soccer team.  They all give up pizza because Annabel can’t eat it.  Annabel’s medicine schedule, on a whiteboard calendar, sits front and center in the dining room, a constant reminder that their lives are not the same, but they stick together and they tough it out because that’s what families do:  they support each other, they love each other.

The most powerful message, however, comes at the end, once Annabel is healed and they return to church.  Christy delivers the sermon, and though she is grateful for the miraculous healing of her daughter, she tells the congregation that miracles are everywhere.  This is the important part.  Miracles are the actions that others perform to support the people in need.  The neighbor who watches the kids.  The waitress who befriends them while they are in Boston. The receptionist who fits them in to the schedule.  The doctor who gives them hope.

This is what I can’t stress enough, because when Wendy was at her sickest, we had a whole network of people both seen and unseen who helped us.  Whether it was taking care of our house, watering our plants, feeding our cats, offering us places to stay, sending us gifts, bringing us Thanksgiving dinner, praying for us, helping us to move, calling to check in, offering up their sick days, taking the time to come up to Boston and help, all of these things are  miracles worth celebrating.  Never underestimate what your small effort can do to help a person.

The name of the movie really should be “Miracles are Everywhere.”

Ultimately, the real shame is that Christy Beam realized it once her daughter was healed, and not before.

Bring tissues if you go to see it, and let me know what you think.

Here is a link to the real Beam family, from People Magazine.

 

Link

Courteous Vs. Helpful

Wendy and I have spent a lot of time in various doctors’ offices lately, and I’ve been reminded that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat a young patient and her family.

Here’s an example of a doctor’s visit that didn’t go so well last week.  It started late in the afternoon, after school.  The doctor was new to us, arrived fifteen minutes after we were in the exam room, did not introduce herself, nor called me anything but Mom.  She did not address Wendy by her name once.  We were there because Wendy had hurt her knee, but the doctor asked a lot of questions about her medical history.  It bordered on nosy.  Granted, Wendy’s medical history is chock full, and I understand that there are a lot of questions, but not necessarily for a hurt knee, other than the fact that she can’t take NSAIDs like ibuprofen because it is bad for her kidney. The doctor also commented on her bifocals as unusual, again nothing to do with Wendy’s knee.  As we left (and thank God that Wendy was out of the room already) she said to me, “Don’t worry mom, she has to do SOMETHING the normal way.  Maybe her knee will be it.”

Unhelpful comment, doctor.  It is not your place to editorialize my daughter and her medical history.  It’s your job to tell us what to do about her knee. Meet us where we are in this moment.

Today we had a totally different experience.  We saw a doctor who has been following Wendy since the beginning of her illness, almost since the first day of it.  First, she saw us downstairs in line waiting for coffee and paid for our order. Then she met us upstairs, where we addressed concerns I had about medication and blood pressure.  She had the nurse come in both to say hello and to confirm medications and prescriptions.  She ordered labs, and though it was a new computer system, made sure that it was working, printing out the labs herself after the front desk couldn’t find them in the new system.  She looked at Wendy’s ultrasound, told us what it said, and we arranged for a meeting in a month.  She wished Wendy happy birthday, and we left.

Granted, this second doctor has known us for a long time, and we have a very special relationship with her, but that doesn’t mean that the first encounter with the first doctor was what we should be willing to accept as care for a child.  For the sake of argument, let’s say it is the difference between being courteous and being helpful, and it applies to everyone from the doctor to the receptionist at the front desk.

Being courteous is answering questions directly, but not necessarily providing any solutions for the patient or parent.  Being helpful is when you team with the parent, even momentarily, so that you can come up with a solution to the problem at hand, so that the parent doesn’t feel like they’ve been hung out to dry.  Being courteous is saying that your patient needs a test and it’s in Building Such and Such.  Being helpful is showing the parent how to get there, why it needs to be done, and what the results will mean.

Let’s face it, families are rarely in the doctors’ office because something good is happening. Therefore, the parent is often stressed.  The child is either sick or in pain, and additionally he or she can pick up on the parent’s distress.  Add to the mixture the traffic getting in, finding a parking spot, the possibility of getting bad news,  any new information that might be thrown at the parent, and there’s an overwhelming sense of doom in the waiting room.  No one is there because they want to be.

So it’s important to treat these families better, then say, someone who is ordering a double-tall-skinny-latte at the drive up window at Starbucks.  “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that,” rings a little hollow when you have a sick kid in tow, knowing that tests will be ordered, waiting for bad news, in a room that (let’s face it) could be a little more child friendly.

The difference is compassion.  Compassion is the key to a successful trip to the doctor.

Compassion is the empathetic concern for the misfortunes of others, accompanied by the desire to help to alleviate that suffering.

Most people get into the health care business because they are compassionate people who want to make a difference in the world. They have bad days too, and hey, they’re human.  When you encounter a whole office that is merely courteous, however, then you know that something is wrong. Sometimes the system has beaten compassion out of them with deadlines to see so many patients per day, etc.  So for the sake of argument,  let’s go through some of the things that make a health care professional helpful.

Dear Health Care Provider:

Please read the chart before you walk in the door.

Please learn my name and don’t just call me “Mom.”  If it’s possible, learn if my child has a nickname.

Please tell me who you are and what you job is, and how you can help us.

Please listen to my concerns.

Please listen to my child and talk to her like she is a full partner in this process, because she is.

Please explain what the next steps are and what your concerns are; tell me why we are doing what we are doing.

Please follow up as promptly as you can with information on tests.

Additionally, the truth is that it’s the little moments, those little compassionate moments, that we remember in health care.  We remember when the doctor gets on the floor to play with our kid, we remember when they sing a song together.  We remember when the nurse looks for samples so you don’t have to immediately go to the pharmacy.

We remember when the doctor tells us bad news and holds our hand.

Ask any parent of a chronically ill kid about a compassionate moment that a health care provider showed, and they will be able to give you ten, because those are the moments that we WANT to remember.  It provides dignity and humanity to an already suffering population.

It is the compassion that binds us together, and it’s better for the bottom line. People who feel that they are valued come back.  The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Care in Boston has tried to measure compassion.  In this article, they show that hospitals that recruit candidates with compassion, train how to be more compassionate, and reward those members who show true compassion have better retention rates, and fewer return visits to the Emergency Department.

Compassionate Care makes a stressful situation better.

What if you’re not encountering helpfulness and compassion?  Some things I do as a parent include introducing myself to everyone in the room:  Doctors, nurses, medical students, you name it.  I introduce my daughter.  I give a brief history if the doctor hasn’t done so to everyone in the room.

If I am not getting the answers I want, I say so, sometimes not so nicely.  I have been known to say, “If I ask you a thousand questions you need to answer them, because I’m the mom” (Please note, this perhaps wasn’t my finest moment.)

If I’m nervous, I write down my concerns ahead of time to make sure we get to them.

I ask why questions.  “Why are we doing this test?  Why do  you think that?”

I thank the health care provider and try to name the thing they’ve done.  Every time. I make Wendy do it too. “Thank the Phlebotomist for the blood draw.”

I’ve also written complaints when something has gone seriously wrong with patient care.

My daughter is more than a diagnosis, she’s a person.  The health care system can’t just treat her, they have to treat the whole family.  It’s just the way it is.  We are a package deal.

If you are a health care provider, please consisder be more compassionate, more helpful, and not just courteous.  Just being courteous won’t get you anywhere.

Rather, it will encourage me to find a better experience for my daughter and my family.