A kind word at bedside can be life-changing for patients


As a goal-oriented individual, I pack my days with appointments, deadlines, and to-do lists. Unfortunately, the time I spend getting from one task to the next gets lost in my focus on end results — a common blindness of Westerners who measure success or achievement by results and not by how one “plays the game.” As parents, we teach our children it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you played the game, yet we emulate a much different set of values.

As health care providers, we are trained to focus on results. As it should be, our main goal is patient outcome, or improved health and longevity. We spend countless hours in the trenches of literal blood, sweat, and tears, with an end goal of good oxygenation, blood pressure control, and pain relief. It’s an honorable profession that provides an enormous sense of accomplishment laced with echoing emotions and pain that often last forever. Some call it a job or career … the ones that “get it” prefer the term “calling.”

Every few months, I’m fortunate to have an encounter that gives me a glimpse of my calling — revealing the bigger picture, confirming that this life is much larger than I realize. I recently treated an individual in a busy emergency department for a minor undisclosed complaint. We had our routine interaction, where I focused on the problem at hand, looking for a solution in the realm of science.

Near the end of our interaction, he informed me that I took care of a similar complaint some time back. The patient stated that something I had said had changed the trajectory of his life. The gentleman thanked me for those words, tearfully expressing the impact. Unfortunately, I don’t remember that interaction — probably because my focus was on the disease process at hand. But what made the difference in his life was not my prescription, but words along the path. Ironically, I’m the doctor, but after this second interaction, I was the one who was treated and transformed.

I don’t believe in chance. This interaction was an epiphany — a reminder that we tend to focus on the finish line or goal, while neglecting the path or journey. I’m not trying to minimize the value of accomplishment or end results. I only want to increase the awareness of the power of the journey. Hermann Hesse understood this all too well: In his novel, The Journey to the East, members of a religious sect called the League travel through time and space searching for the final destination of “the ultimate truth.” Only, later do they learn that the journey was its own priceless reward. Seemingly minuscule moments for you may be life-changing events for others, creating lasting impressions that can literally change the world. Whether you’re doing homework with your children, or in the line at Wal-Mart, the path makes a difference. In health care, a kind word at bedside or warm blanket in the night may have more healing power than you could ever realize.

Jeffrey McWilliams is an emergency physician who blogs at Advocates Of Excellence.  This article originally appeared in Fulfilled Physicians.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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