Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Small kindnesses

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.


phd me said...

You are so right, Flavia - and so glad all turned out well!

Bardiac said...

What a great parallel to think about.

I'm glad you're okay. You were right to go get checked, since it's not like you can really know that such things aren't serious, especially if you've never experienced them before.

Comrade Physioprof said...

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)

This vividly demonstrates why it is absolutely absurd that our medical system in the US relies on emergency rooms to provide primary care to large numbers of people, and why it is absolutely disgusting that a motherfucken BUSINESSMAN running on a platform of fiscal austerity would claim that this is just as reasonable as providing preventive and primary care by paying for everyone to be able to visit normal clinics and doctors' offices.

Withywindle said...

Best wishes re health. So far, all my own heart scares have been indigestion, but I eagerly await the real thing.

Flavia said...


Heh. My own election-year thought: I'M part of the problem! I have a minor freak-out, and I run to the ER and the hospital orders up all these expensive tests without batting an eye.

(And/but: this is the first time I've so much as set foot in a hospital in six years, and I only ever see a doctor for my annual gyno exam. So dammit, I earned this one!)

PhDMe, Bardiac, & Withy:

Many thanks. I'm glad too!

Susan said...

What everyone else said -- I'm glad you're ok, and since women are now told that the symptoms you describe might be cardiac, you were right to check.

I spent many hours in ERs some years ago with my husband, and I was consistently impressed by the staff, who handled a terrible space, crowding, and chaos much better than I would have. My favorite was the conversation of the nurse discharging the guy who was obviously a regular, an alcoholic who was possibly homeless. Very kind, helpful, practical.

Jack said...

I am so happy to know you, in part because you can take a situation such as this and make it interesting and connect it to being generally kind and aware about your world. However, I think people (and especially women) in a capitalist system of healthcare are often made to feel shame for actually using the healthcare that they pay so much for. I'm glad for the most part you did not experience this, but I don't want to think you feel any of it. Serious.

Anonymous said...

THe reason so many of us go to the ER for minor freak-outs is because doctors offices are generally only open from 8-5, Monday-Friday. Why? Is this when people get sick? No, it is the most PROFITABLE and CONVENIENT time for the staff. This country has a for-profit system, not a WELLNESS system.

dhawhee said...

probably obvious, but i'll say it anyway. i doubt the desk person would have reacted that way if you were a man. not just b/c of basic sexism, but because of widespread assumptions about men and cardiac health. that sounds scary. i'm glad the others knew better.

Flavia said...

Thanks, all.

And Anon: I know! And the part that caused me alarm happened after 5 p.m., which I'd told the in-take nurse.

I also explained (per Susan's comment) that I knew women often experienced heart attacks differently--and with more moderate symptoms--than men. To which she sniffed, "well, everyone's different."

(But as I say, everyone else at the hospital was very affirmative about my decision to get myself checked out.)

Renaissance Girl said...

I'm so glad that you're okay!

And so very grateful for this post today, because I was about to interact with someone about a matter that needs resolving and I was absolutely loaded for bear. Your post succeeded in doing what my good-natured spouse has been trying to do all day: remind me that respect and kindness trumps righteous indignation any day.

What Now? said...

Glad you're okay! Sounds like a scary evening (before it became a boring evening).

When I had my own little medical misadventure in the spring, everyone but the doctor was absolutely lovely -- the EMTs, the nurses, the transport folks, the cat-scanners -- all gracious and kind and understanding that I was feeling panicky. The doctor himself wasn't bad, just obviously busy and brusque and a tad less gentle than I would have liked.

Historiann said...

Like everyone, I'm glad to hear it was relatively nothing.

Just a suggestion for you since you write in this post about your interest in other people's work lives: check out Marc Maron's WTF podcast, in which he interviews comedians in every episode. Although of course he interviews probably 20 dudes for every one woman, I find their conversations about how they think about their careers and working lives fascinating. A lot of the podcasts are all about that--how to stay in the field for a long time, how to think about your career at different stages, etc. I can't say that I've learned anything that I can apply directly to my professional life, but it's interesting to hear other professionals talk to people in their profession about their profession. (Dig?)

Psycgirl said...

Very glad you are okay, and thanks for the reminder about bedside manner. I swear I have responded to every inquiry by my students lately with irritation - it is not their fault everything they are doing is new, and that it must be exhausting to be learning so many new things at the same time!