Today wasn’t any less busy than other days this week. Like many EDs across the country, we are boarding many patients. The acuity of our ill patients is high at baseline, and, combined with influenza season, many hospitals are at capacity and still trying to function. Stress levels are peaking, and staff is overworked and underpaid at a time of the year when money tends to be stretched thin to start with. It’s been a tumultuous week.
But I had an experience this morning that set the tone for my day and, in turn, set a chain of gratitude in motion. When I took sign out from the night physician this morning, there were many familiar names on the patient list as we rounded. This comes as no surprise since I’ve worked the last few days and most admits haven’t budged. But as we walked past one room, I couldn’t figure out why the patient name was familiar. I figured it was probably a patient I had seen recently and readmitted. There was no time to dwell on it as my day progressed rapidly.
A couple hours and many traumas later, there was an unexpected break in the storm. I walked past the patient’s room on the way to my computer, where my coffee sat untouched. As I passed his doorway, he called to me, “Excuse me, Dr Willett?” He beckoned me into his room.
I approached his bedside, my cheery, under-caffeinated smile highlighted by dark under-eye circles, my now-cold coffee in the back of my mind.
“Good morning, sir. What can I help you with?”
“Do you remember me?” he asked as his eyes searched mine.
Oh shit. Not the “Do you remember me?” question! Countless new faces flood my world each day. I’m lucky I can remember where I put my keys, much less remember each and every patient. I can usually recognize a face though, even if I can’t match it with a name — and his face was familiar. His name was familiar. But I couldn’t put the pieces together.
Palms upward, I spoke honestly, “Your name rung a bell for me as soon as I saw it, but I can’t place why…?”
“Two years ago…” he said.
The tone of his voice told me to sit down.
“Two years ago, you changed my life. You SAVED my life. You were the only person to speak candidly to me in a scary situation, and that one thing made me decide to stay in the hospital when I wanted to leave.”
His face suddenly collided with his name in my brain, sending chills down my spine. I slid my chair closer to his bed and grabbed the railing.
He continued, “They told me later it was the Widowmaker. I’ve googled that. I know how lucky I am.”
“The one thing that stands out to me,” he said, “is you walking in the room and telling me, ‘You won’t like what I’m going to say to you, and you might be angry with me, but that’s okay. What’s important is how you react to this and what we choose to do next.’”
Although two years had passed, he recited my own words back to me almost verbatim. As he did, I could almost feel myself standing in that room with him again. I remembered my frustration that he wanted to leave, my fear that he WOULD leave. I don’t know why my words resonated with him that day, but, by some grace, they did, and he stayed in the hospital. And he lived.
While the ED stirred outside his door, I sat a while longer with him, and we talked about his health, his family, his life. Then, as I got up to leave his room, he grabbed my hand. “Remember that it’s worth it,” he said. Tears filled his eyes, then mine. “I know you have all been so busy lately and you must be tired and overworked, and sometimes it’s thankless. But just remember. It’s worth it.”
His words stuck with me the rest of my shift, just like my words had stayed with him for the past two years. Imagine! The power of words to live even after leaving the safety of our mouths — to stay, dried and rattling around, in the heads and hearts of their recipients. For the rest of my day, I carved out my words carefully. I chose joyful words and grateful words and positive, uplifting phrases. I gave them out to everyone around me, and I watched how they were received. I imagined them being carried beyond today.
It’s a lesson that goes beyond medicine. We all know words have power. It might sound sappy, but if something so simple can impact a person so positively, shouldn’t we all be doing it? Choose your words as if you know they’ll be carried. And remember that even if you don’t get the thank you — because we most often don’t — that it doesn’t mean you didn’t make a difference. And keep giving thank yous of your own, because your gratitude might just inspire someone else.