Sue is correct. After my heart attack, and subsequent complicated diagnosis of coronary microvascular disease, arriving at the same hospital suddenly became a big deal to me in ways I could never have anticipated given that I’d worked at this hospital for many years.
I now had to find my way to new areas of our large hospital I’d never seen before, to cardiology departments that were unfamiliar and surreal, in order to undergo strange diagnostic tests, scary cardiac procedures and endless follow-up appointments that were in turn unfamiliar and surreal.
As I once explained to hospital staff (Carolyn’s Top 10 Tips on How to Treat Your Patients) after one particularly upsetting experience at a treadmill stress echocardiogram appointment in my hospital:
“Just because you do these same procedures day in and day out routinely, do not make assumptions that patients know anything at all about the procedure you’re about to perform on them.
“These tests/procedures have been ordered because a cardiac event has already happened, is happening, or might happen in the very near future. This is extremely serious for most patients.
“There is no such thing as a routine cardiac test or procedure, especially once you’ve had a cardiac event. Patients can feel distraught, vulnerable, or afraid just thinking that there might be something (else) wrong with their hearts.”
This may also help to enlighten certain health care professionals who attempt to reassure half-naked patients trying awkwardly to cover assorted body parts with those stupid hospital gowns. Such reassurances often end up sounding like:
“Don’t be embarrassed! I’ve seen lots of half-naked bodies in my job!”
News flash! Embarrassment is not about YOU, hospital staffer!
This is NOT about you and your comfort level, but about US and our discomfort level. We do not care how much bare skin you’ve personally seen, poked or stuck a scalpel into. All we care about is that it’s our own body parts that are hanging out in shockingly immodest fashion during an already significantly stressful event.
It’s neither reassuring nor respectful to remind a patient that she’s merely your 1 o’clock procedure, the obstacle between you and your next coffee break, just a piece of meat on a slab – but worse, an invisible piece of meat.
And my Top 10 Tips reminder to men who work as lab techs (and who do not bother to introduce themselves to each patient!):
“Next time I’m ordered to strip to the waist in front of a strange man, he’d better buy me dinner first.”
This sentiment may indeed feel like a news flash for longtime hospital staff who might have never paused to consider that a patient’s medical visits are very different from merely showing up for work.
I believe this lack of consideration is also why so many physicians and other healthcare professionals inevitably report a “Eureka!” moment when facing their own health crises. No matter how many years of experience listening to and treating patients they may have, they will likely announce loudly to their colleagues and beyond, for example, that hospitals are demoralizing, medical procedures frightening, lack of dignity embarrassing, symptoms distressing, dependence humiliating, the simplest of tasks exhausting, anxiety relentless, their past as a healthy person but a dim memory, and their future looming bleak and uncertain as patients. Who knew? See my guest post, Why Physicians Must Stop Saying: “We Are All Patients (published in the British Medical Journal – BMJ).
Familiarity, as they say, may breed contempt. Not open-faced contempt, but that wide dismissive distance between those familiar with health care as a workplace and their patients making that long scary walk through the hospital doors. Patients are the ones who go home from that day’s procedure or specialty clinic or diagnostic lab often trying desperately to make sense of what’s happening to them. Physicians, nurses and other hospital staff, by comparison are the ones who go home that evening to essentially the same life they’d enjoyed the day before, and the day before that.
Dr. Rita Charon, one of the pioneers in the field of Narrative Medicine, and author of the book Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness explains the patient perspective to her medical colleagues like this:
“While doctors are knowledgeable about disease, they do not adequately appreciate that illness changes everything for the patient.”
Q: Have you ever experienced a hospital workplace as both employee and patient?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about becoming a hospital patient in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).