I spent a few hours last night in the emergency room at the local hospital. It turned out to be nothing--I'd had discomfort in my chest and neck and running down my left arm that I thought might be cardiac--but once I was there I had to stay there, for a long and boring while, getting tended to maybe once every twenty minutes. I had a book and I had PBS's pre-debate coverage on the t.v., but what I found most engaging was watching and listening to the hospital staff bustling back and forth.
Ever since I started this job, I've found myself enormously interested in the worklives of others whose jobs don't occur in a typical office environment--and especially those whose jobs involve continual, short-term interactions with the public: hairdressers, for example, see a different client every 30 or 60 minutes all day long, while clergymen and -women spend a certain amount of time "on stage"--but also have an endless series of individual meetings, many of them urgent, with couples getting married, families planning funerals, individuals in crisis. A clergyperson's worklife is probably most analogous to a professor's, in the sense that it involves roughly the same component parts (there's an administrative and office component, a performative component, a caring-profession component, and also a solitary and studious component), but I think of my hairdresser every time I schedule a day of student conferences and have to gather my energy up to make friendly chit-chat with each of fifteen successive students who walk through my door with a first draft of a paper.
I also try to remember, when I visit my hairdresser or meet with my priest--or buy stuff at the grocery store or take my car in for servicing--that although the other person's job may involve serving me, it's a dynamic relationship: I have a right to good service, but I'm the one entering their workplace; what I do there can make their workday more pleasurable or more exasperating.
So in that same spirit, I was interested in the ways the hospital staff interacted with each other and with me: the in-take nurse was brusque and impatient, putting me on the defensive and making me feel very small and stupid (why hadn't I called my doctor first? why would I think these symptoms could be cardiac?), but everyone else was warm and friendly and kind. I was handled by at least eight different people, not counting the front desk staff--three nurses, one physician's assistant, an EKG tech, two X-ray techs, two transport personnel (who wheeled me to and from the X-ray room)--and every single one introduced him or herself by name and job title, explained what they were doing, and made pleasant chit-chat in interstitial moments or as time allowed.
I came away very impressed with the hospital staff, not just their professionalism and training, but also all the intangibles that amount to bedside manner and putting a patient at ease. The X-ray techs were solicitous about my bare feet (which weren't cold, but they insisted on finding me socks) and had an amusing routine involving the questions they were required to ask me (said one, deadpan, in a G-man voice "we need to know. . . what you know"), and the transport personnel were cheerful and funny, joking with me about whether a hospital, in the name of public health, should even allow patients to watch the presidential debates.
Coming as this visit did just at the middle of the semester, when I'm emailing students about exam and paper grades and setting up appointments to calm anxieties and suggest strategies for improvement, it reminded me that small interactions matter a lot. The brusque nurse wasn't intending to be mean--maybe she'd had a bad day, and I'm sure she sees lots of hypochondriacs who panic and go to the ER for every little thing. But if she'd been typical of the hospital staff, I'd have left ashamed and reluctant ever to return, lest I be scolded for crying wolf. The other personnel were efficient and obviously very busy, but they listened when I talked, they smiled, and they treated me and my symptoms seriously. I left feeling reassured--and very pleased with my local healthcare community.
I need to remember this when a student drops by my office unannounced when I'm frantically prepping for class, or goes on and on about some irrelevant thing long after I've answered their questions and I have three other students lined up outside the door. Being brisk needn't mean being unkind. And we could all stand to work on our bedside manner.