For My Daughter, the Patient: Compassion Made All the Difference

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The more patients’ stories we review here at PVI (1,200-plus to date), the more we’re struck by how compassion can be a lifeline in the middle of a terrifying experience. Here’s my own story below, from four years ago. What’s yours?

Jess, the day of admission

Hospital transport arrives to take my daughter just after 9 AM. We’d been told they’d be coming at 10 AM – an hour later –  for her ultrasound and X-ray. Jess and I exchange a look. She’s just about to take another swig of the laxative drink she’s been tossing down since 8:30. “I’ll go with you,” I say. “We’ll make sure there’s a bathroom nearby.”

Strike one for the Golden Cocoon.

We get to the ultrasound department, and are left alone in a holding room. We’re told the nearest bathroom is down the hall and to the right. Jess can’t walk. I stop a man in a white lab coat, explain the situation. He makes sure we’re ushered into a procedure room that has a bathroom.

Score one point for the Golden Cocoon.

Praying for Jess to recover

Five days prior, Jess had been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune disease where the body attacks the coating that protects the nerves. In the space of five days she’s lost the ability to walk unassisted. She’s wracked with back pain that can only be managed by intravenous morphine. Overnight, her face became partly paralyzed. We’re told her condition might worsen…the paralysis might move from her arms and legs to her chest. If it reaches her diaphragm, she won’t be able to breathe. If that happens, she’ll be whisked off to intensive care. A breathing tube will have to be inserted, to keep her alive until the symptoms begin to reverse. In any case, even if the worst never comes to pass, recovery will take six months to a year.

There is no cure. There is a treatment, an infusion dripped into her arm that carries a substance extracted from the blood of 20,000 donors. As we pray for this treatment to curb her paralysis, other problems rear their heads. Strong painkillers have seized up and stopped Jess’ digestive system. She can’t keep food down. There may be problems with her liver and kidneys, too, which is why she’s having this day’s diagnostic tests.

As the technician completes the ultrasound, the man in the white lab coat hovers over the screen. “Liver looks good”, he says. Great news, but Jess’ face is pinched. She is deep breathing now, in pain. Her morphine shot is due. “How long to get her to her X-ray?” I ask. “Depends how long it takes for transport to get here,” says the technician, wiping gel off Jess’ belly, not meeting my eyes.

Strike two points for the Golden Cocoon.

***

Since she was admitted, my husband Jim and I have stuck to our daughter’s side like burrs on a Collie. I refuse to leave the hospital at night; he returns every morning. He sees Jess struggling to breathe through the pain, and hovers over his little girl, his tone soothing. “Take deep, calming, breaths. Belly to your spine, now let it out. You’re in a golden cocoon,” It’s an image from meditation practice, an activity that they share, where you imagine yourself bathed in a golden, healing light. You breathe it in, and breathe it out. Try not to let distractions, negativity and pain reach you. To preserve her Golden Cocoon, Jim brings rose oil and dabs it under her nose. We greet everyone who enters her room like they are guests in her life, guarding Jess’ sleep and peace as best we can. I massage Jess’ numb legs and feet with lotion… legs that just months before had taken her on a 2,200-mile walk traversing the entire Appalachian Trail. Rubbing her legs, I smile up at my beautiful daughter. I can’t let her see the sadness and fear that well up inside me.

But we have our work cut out for us. As an endless cast of doctors, nurses, specialists, phlebotemists and therapists rotate in and out of Jess’ room, each needing to extract something (blood, information, a vital sign) from her tortured body, some are truly wonderful. But some have no concept of the Golden Cocoon, or they wouldn’t grab her wrist to scan her bracelet without a word, or leave the door open to a noisy hallway when they leave, or send her off for an hour of tests after starting her on a laxative.

***

Back in the ultrasound bay, I ask “is there any way we could hurry with transport to X-ray? Jess is in pain, and due for her morphine.” The man in the white coat looks up, turns to the technician. “Why don’t we just bring her there?”

I smile my thanks, squeeze Jess’ hand. Score two for the Golden Cocoon.

The Chief of Radiology taking Jess to X-ray

I call Jim on my cell phone. “We’re heading to X-ray now. Can you talk to the nurse and make sure Jess’ morphine dose is ready just as soon as we get back?” We set off with Jess’ gurney, white coat man in the lead, ultrasound technician pulling up the rear. “That’s the Chief of Radiology!” the technician stage-whispers to me, referring to white coat man. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Chief of Radiology transport a patient!”

Score three points for the Golden Cocoon!

Jess is whisked immediately into X-ray. They are actually waiting for her. Someone has called ahead.

Score three points.

As her gurney is wheeled inside, Jim comes down the hall with Jess’ day nurse, Patricia. On her face is a big smile. In her hand is a hypodermic needle– Jess’ dose of morphine. Jess sees them arrive, takes it all in. Her frown smoothes out, she exhales deeply. Her eyes close slowly. Tears leak out.

Words can never express the gratitude of a terrified parent when such kindness is shown…when we feel seen, and that we matter. (More about that an earlier post about the Ken Schwartz Center for Compassionate Care). Think about it: as hospital patients, a parade of people you do not know have license to pierce and cut your skin, waken you out of your sleep, expose your body, move your things out of your reach, or refer to you as “the knee replacement in 305”. The dehumanization of patients is not conscious; it’s a consequence of the staff heeding rhythms, schedules and constraints they are told to serve. But when we let the little “dents” to the patient’s cocoon go unchecked, when no one points out how hurtful these seemingly small wounds are to our spirit and sense of self, it gives tacit permission for bigger ones.

The secret ingredient is consciousness. We make a point to protect fragile objects before we put them in the mail, insulating them from harm with layers of bubble wrap and sturdy cardboard.

Surely the hospital patient deserves no less.

The day Jess came home to recover. Even the kitties were glad.

Thankfully, our daughter Jess recovered remarkably well. She now lives in the Bay Area where she coaches executives, students and entrepreneurs on developing and articulating their own underlying story. We’re incredibly grateful to her wonderful medical team, and to more people than we can mention.

Of course, many people have no one to sit by their side and look out for them in the hospital. We saw many such patients during Jess’ stay in the neurology wing – all alone in their beds, day after day. It’s one reason people like me go to bat in meetings and conferences on behalf of patients everywhere.

But though good medical outcomes cannot be guaranteed, there’s no reason care can’t be compassionate and kind. Please call it out when it happens to you…your doctors and nurses need to hear it. They’re pretty stressed out, too…and their bosses need to tell them it’s a priority.

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