Recently, after a fairly long day of surgery where everything was going well, I was finishing my fourth case. It was about 2pm on a Friday, and we were running on schedule, which made me happy.
As I walked out to the waiting area in search of the family of the elderly woman on whom I had performed an elective procedure, I noticed her husband sitting in the corner. He stood up and walked toward me. I immediately smiled, held out my hand, and let him know everything had gone very well.
His whole posture was tight and constricted. He had a frown on his face the entire time. Despite my smiling and reassuring him, he barely nodded in response.
“Everything went well,” I said. “She lost very little blood. I’m very pleased with how everything went.”
Yet, he continued to grimace.
I tried to determine why he might be angry. We were not running late, so it couldn’t be that. We were finishing at a reasonable time for him to get his wife home before the rush-hour traffic began, so that wasn’t it.
I continued to say a few more words, searching his face for the answer.
And then, it came to me.
He took a deep breath and tears welled up in his eyes. Then, he let his breath out, very slowly.
And, suddenly, it hit me.
Oh, how dumb of me. He wasn’t angry with me. He was worried about his wife of 43 years the whole time I had been in the operating room. He could not let his guard down or relax until he had totally registered that all was well.
It wasn’t about me. Or any delay in our schedule. Or the traffic.
His reaction was about his deep love for his wife, and his fear of her having surgery.
In my mind, it was a very straightforward procedure that I had done hundreds of times. To him, it was a major event.
I touched his shoulder and said, “May I give you a hug?”
He melted into my hug, this big burly older fellow. I hugged him hard and said softly in his ear, so others in the waiting area wouldn’t hear, “It’s scary when our loved ones have surgery, isn’t it?”
That’s all he needed.
He finally nodded and a slow smile came upon his face.
He needed to know his wife was fine and her procedure was behind her.
He needed to be certain all was well.
Only then could he relax and hear what I had been saying.
It wasn’t about me at all.
Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist who blogs at Love Medicine Again.