On The Flipside: When It’s Your Family Who Is In Need

My family, through some seemingly cosmic joke, has had more to do with receiving health care than most families have to deal with. Long before I ever contemplated a career in the medical field, I personally had been to the ER many times for gymnastics accidents, hospitalized for appendicitis and was diagnosed as a teen with fibromyalgia.

During my first year of college my hilarious, unbelievably kind , loving and active father was diagnosed with, and died from, pancreatic cancer.

Along with some other more or less major broken bones and a brain surgery last summer, my family is well acquainted with being on the receiving end of health care.

And now my sweet, stained-glass lamp-making grandmother who taught me to crochet is undergoing major heart surgery three thousand miles from where I am.

I feel helpless as my mother updates me on the diagnostic progress, almost cursed with just enough knowledge to know what questions to ask, but not enough to know what should be done.

All the problems that I’m well aware of, like inpatient specialties not communicating with each other, have come to life. Neuro isn’t talking to cardio, cardio isn’t talking to neuro. None of the docs are telling my sweet grandmother what tests they are running and why.

All of my family’s experiences being on the receiving end of health care has taught me a lot in the realms of compassion, understanding, and fear. Though I’ll never know the names of the nurses who held my hand all night and fed me ice chips while having an uncomfortable NG tube, nor the hospice nurses who literally held me upright on both sides in the moments after my father died, I’ll never forget their kindness, their touches, and their comforting words.

It is experiences like this where I try to take a big step back and remember that for some people, there is nothing more terrifying than a trip to your health care providers office when you don’t know what’s going on.

This past week I took care of a woman who had questions about an abnormal lab test, and the more and more we talked, the harder the tears fell. I was confused; everything I was telling her was reassuring.

So we slowed down. I stopped talking. Let the space open up.

“I’m scared I have cancer and I don’t know what to do, I’m just paralyzed by fear.”

It turns out she had had an abnormal pap and went to get a colposcopy done, a follow-up test. She didn’t know the result of the colpo, didn’t know what follow up she needed, and was very scared. We came up with a plan. We’d request the records from the colpo and figure out what we needed to do next.

The tears stopped falling so hard, and we had a plan.

Being far away from family while they’re going through a big medical ordeal is extremely stressful. All I can hope is that the nurses will be kind and make astute assessments, and that the NPs and docs will take some extra time to explain and listen.

I’m not a praying woman, but my grandmother sure is, so I offer this prayer for her health care team:

May your hands be sure and quick but your speach slow and understanding.
May you remember that there is a much beloved grandmother under that sterile drape.
May you take her pain seriously and treat appropriately.
May you work cooperatively with the other specialties, and take a moment to both read and write thorough notes that will make her plan of care smooth.
Please hold her hand when you explain things in plain English because I cannot. 
May you remember that even though you’re exhausted and seeing too many patients, that you can hang that feeling up before you walk into her room and you’re going to give her and my family all the compassion you can muster.

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