The Small Gesture

I never wore bright colors to the hospice. Red and white polos remained in my closet while black and grey came out. Wearing vibrant and seemingly happy colors in a somber space was disrespectful of the difficult end of life issues that patients and their families were making. Instead of asking if it was appropriate, I tried not to offend patients and their families with my dress and flagrant disregard of their suffering.
Most of the patients were comatose, and each was vulnerable and dying. All the patients had to distinguish themselves were their names and family members who sometimes sat by their bedside. Their lives were a mystery.
One afternoon in March, I walked into a patient’s room and was struck by the sad wonder in the eyes of the elderly patient’s wife as she sat by her husband’s bedside. I spoke with her for several minutes after checking on her husband. I smiled as she spoke ramblingly, painfully aware of the beginnings of dementia in her repeated statements and questions. She spoke of disagreements with her daughter and life with her husband. It befuddled me how someone so small could carry the crushing emotional load of a dying husband. Eventually, I had to remove myself from the conversation to help with other patients.
A week later, I was walking past the nurses’ station when the wife came out of her husband’s room. I stopped as she smiled, walked up to me and craned her neck up. She spoke words full of happiness and grabbed my hand without asking, “My boyfriend and I are going for a walk,” she whispered to a nurse as she pulled me toward her husband’s room. She introduced me to her daughter and her daughter’s family. After brief conversation, I took my leave and left the room with my usual “holler if you need anything”.
I do not remember that lady’s name, nor do I remember her husband’s name or her daughter’s. What I do, and always will, remember is her smile, her hand in mine, and her resolute joy. She showed selfless vulnerability in a simple and unplanned gesture. Through layers of emotional protection I had constructed over the past several months, she had touched something inside me that recognized her all-too human story. That something was empathy.
Through an unassuming act of humor, kindness and vulnerability, she showed me the humanity behind the practice of medicine which I often overlooked and sometimes disregarded. She showed me even in the darkest of times, patients and their loves ones are still human, and healthcare providers, especially doctors, have every reason to acknowledge and open themselves to this. Despite forces in our modern healthcare system that diminish the humanity of patients and encourage distance between providers and patients, a little lady showed me that recognizing patients’ and their loved ones’ humanity can have unforeseen positive impacts both for caregiver, care recipient and any involved with the care recipient. This lesson, a lesson of empathy and letting yourself become vulnerable to the humanity of others, will not be forgotten as I pursue a career in critical care medicine, where patients and their families are often going through the darkest times of their lives. Her lesson of unrestrained kindness and empathy to recognize the suffering of patients and patients’ loved ones will never be forgotten.