A life lesson in the operating room

Recently, there was an issue in my O.R. No, the surgery went well. The patient was healthy and tolerated the procedure just fine. And, yes, we had the proper equipment and it all functioned perfectly.

This was another kind of issue, something that I had not encountered before. It turned out to be a life lesson. My team and I were getting started in the O.R., for a fairly routine day. A fellow, Joe, rotated in to give one of my team members a quick break. I’ve known Joe for several years, but he hadn’t helped out in my room before. We welcomed him, and as is my custom, I brought Joe up to speed on how I ask each team member to name three things they are grateful for before we begin.

I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Joe did not seem his usual self that day. He seemed quiet, harried, or perhaps even angry. I couldn’t get a read on what was going on. I’m aware that the people who are assigned to give O.R. teams breaks have drawn the “short straw.” I imagine they feel out of sorts, like a substitute teacher assigned to a new, rowdy classroom every 20 minutes. I noticed Joe clenched his jaw under his facemask, as I recounted the items my team members had said they were grateful for.

They said easy things, like “I’m grateful it’s Friday” or “I’m happy I’m not on call this weekend.”

Joe shook his head without looking up at me. He finally muttered, “I can’t think of anything at all to be grateful for today.”

There was a pause. The team looked at me. Sure, sometimes one of us has a hard time coming up with something, but we can usually tease it out. But that day, something about Joe’s demeanor told me not to push. I let it go gently and told him what I was grateful for that day, and we went on with the case.

A few minutes later, Joe left our room to give another team a break down the hall. But that encounter stayed with me. A couple weeks later, I saw Joe in our hallway. His countenance hadn’t changed. If anything, he looked more tense, more withdrawn. I entered the O.R. while he was still in the hallway.

Worried we might have a case of deja vu, I said, “You know, I’ve been thinking. Days will come up when any one of us could be having a rough time. And on those days, it’s hard for our team members to know what we may be going through.”

“So,” I continued, “if someone on our team is having one of those days and they don’t want to name three things they’re grateful for, it’s OK. Instead, why don’t we each name three things about that person that we are grateful for?”

My usual team just looked at me quizzically and nodded. And then Joe slumped in to give a break. We greeted Joe and I asked him if wanted to share anything he was grateful for. In the same breath, I said that we would be glad to name three things we were grateful about him, if he chose to abstain.

“No pressure,” I smiled under my mask, hoping he would look up at my eyes. He didn’t. He just shook his head and said,

“No, not today.”

So, I proceeded without skipping a beat: “Joe, I’m grateful for how caring you are to each patient you encounter throughout the day. I’m grateful for your knowledge of medicine so you can safely help everyone do well. And, I’m grateful that you came to work today to help others be able to take their breaks and lend a hand.”

Each member of my team stepped up in kind, and named three things they were grateful for about Joe. “I’m grateful you come in early every morning to help set up the room,” one nurse said. “I’m grateful you bring in those yummy donuts when it’s someone’s birthday,” another said.

As the last person made the rounds, Joe glanced up at us, nodded quietly and mumbled a soft, “Thanks.”

Last week, my team and I were told that Joe died. He had been diagnosed with a serious illness a few months before. After a moment of silence, with a lump in my throat, I spoke: “I’m grateful that Joe knew we cared about him,” I said. Every member of my team nodded.

Blessings, Joe. You will be missed.

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker and personal coach.  She blogs at Love Medicine Again and her upcoming book, Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine, will be available this summer. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD.

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