What you say matters: An insensitive comment in the ICU

Rarely are health care professionals given the opportunity to truly ponder a crucial aspect of patient care; the truth behind what it feels like to lie in a hospital bed, vulnerable, disoriented, and stripped of every basic human dignity. I have spent over 300 days as a patient in hospitals and more than three decades in and out of doctor’s offices and testing facilities. I have a profound respect for health care providers and trust in the integrity of our medical system.

However, I also believe that the relationships cultivated between patient and health care professionals can powerfully impact patient outcomes.  I am passionate about sharing my personal patient experiences in order to shed light on the critical role empathy plays in patient care.

Words are our most powerful weapon. In 2006, an intensive care unit nurse strung together seven innocuous words that still pierce my heart.

I lay there in the new ICU room and felt a sense of loneliness and anxiety wash over me. The strange and incessant beeping of everyone’s machines on the floor resembled a video arcade. The smell of alcohol and hospital soap engulfed the room. My nurse came in to change my post-surgical dressings. I waited for her to do the wet-to-dry style dressing change that had become familiar in the previous ICU. Instead, she pulled out a tube of Neosporin and was about to drown my surgical wounds in that goop. I panicked and meekly whispered, “I need wet-to-dry dressings. That is how they did it at the last hospital.”

The nurse looked at me incredulously and retorted, “I have been a nurse for twenty years, so please just let me do my job.”

I gulped back sobs, my mind racing and worrying that this nurse was undoubtedly about to screw me up, just like the last hospital had. As the nurse talked to me, she learned that I had a four-week-old infant at home. She looked at me and wryly said, “Well … I guess you’re not breastfeeding,” and then laughed at her own joke. I gave a weak smile, but pushed back more tears and tried to reconcile how someone could be so callous.

I spent hours wondering about my neighbors on the ICU floor.  How did they wind up here? Were they as scared as I? Did they have families at home waiting for them? These thoughts were interrupted by a loud stampede of footsteps racing down the hall and the blaring of doctors shouting, “Code blue!” I strained my ears to hear the commotion and then wept when all sounds stopped.  A few hours later, I saw a gurney being wheeled out in the hall with a large body draped from head to toe in white sheets. I had never been that close to a dead person before. I held myself close and shuddered. The ICU is like a deli counter.  Everyone’s got a number. We’re all just waiting in line.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the bureaucratic nightmare that plagues our current health care system.  Now more than ever, care providers need to hear a patient’s perspective on what it’s like to have your fate hinge on whoever walks through your hospital room door.

Lisa Goodman-Helfand blogs at Comfortable In My Thick Skin.

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