Last month I was invited to speak before a small group of doctors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. They were a group of Fellows (not to be confused with Fellas). My layman’s understanding of a Fellow is a doctor who has already gone through their residency and is, in fact, a full on doctor, but who is specializing at another level. These Fellows are studying under Dr. McGrane, the physician who oversaw Pete’s care during his last week in the hospital exactly two years ago. None of the Fellows had ever met Pete.
What excited me most about being invited to speak to the docs, was the fact that I was invited to do it last year as well, and that they were willing to have me back! I didn’t suck…Yay! I don’t mean to sound falsely modest, but I couldn’t even give a coherent book report in high school, so this is big time for me. Apparently though, I struck a chord with last year’s group, so when the new class came through this year, they wanted to hear my story. Our story. Again.
As much as patients and caregivers want to be heard, many doctors want to listen and understand. Thankfully these men and women are on a whole different plane intellectually. They are focused and fierce and don’t like to fail. It is a profession that really consumes the best of them, and Pete and I have been surrounded by the best of them.
What to me sounds like a story with a sad ending, is really a story that’s 99.9% made of resilience and miracles, and that’s the story they want to hear. They want to understand things from my perspective, and from Pete’s, which I feel confident that I can relay. I want to feel like my story is important because that helps with the grief. It’s invigorating to have the opportunity to talk about the road we traveled the last few years of Pete’s life, and to know that it is not only fully appreciated but also can be a tool for learning.
Last year when I sat down in front of the group I was nervous and sad. It had been 10 months since Pete had died. Dr. McGrane had taken what little extra time he had during his busy days and read “Joined At The Heart.” Based on that, and based on the week we spent dancing around each other in cardiac ICU, he gingerly, in his Scottish accent, asked me if I would be so kind as to talk to his Fellows. I tried to think of ways to avoid it—to think of excuses why I shouldn’t and the only reason I could come up with was because I was scared. That’s just not good enough for me these days. Scary was being in that hospital room with Pete knowing there was nothing that I could do to save him. Nothing will ever be that scary, so no excuses. Do the talk.
For about 45 minutes I tried to speak as authentically and honestly as I could. I injected some humor, because Pete would have. They listened. They teared up. I teared up. They wanted to understand and I wanted to help them understand what goes on in our minds as patients and caregivers when our lives hang by a thread, and when we are counting on them to use every single bit of skill and humanity they have to pull us through. I wanted them to understand that even though we know we are only one of their many patients–we are the only ones that matter to us.
I could tell my story moved them and it helped me feel just a little bit better to know some good use was made of it. I noticed that one doctor came in about half way through. After I was done he introduced himself to me and told the group that he was a Fellow the year before and had heard me speak. He came because he wanted to hear it again. THEN, he listed three things that he learned from me and how he had specifically implemented them into his patient care over the past year. SCORE! What more could I ask for?
This was just a small group of people. It’s not like I’m speaking at a TED Talk. But if I can chat with 15 people, and possibly have an impact on 15 people then I am happy. Pete’s story lives on and my grief finds a place to do positive work. It’s very likely that there is a place for your story. You might not even think that you have one, but you do. So, given the opportunity to tell your story, take it.
Here’s what I left them with:
“All of you are in a really difficult position. You are making decisions non-stop all day. Important, life-saving decisions. And in the midst of that I assume it is self-preservation that keeps you at arm’s length. But let me assure you that it doesn’t take much to make that connection. To set patients and caregivers at ease. It’s hard not to make assumptions about the people that you are caring for, but try not to. We are at our very worst when you encounter us. I was at my very worst. I hadn’t slept for days. I was losing my soulmate and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. Sometimes it’s a hand on a shoulder, or looking someone straight in the eyes, or just listening for a minute longer than normal. Just remember that whatever humanity you bring out in us, will come out in you too. And, it’s just my theory, but I think that you will be a better doctor. You’ll re-invigorate your personal inspirations and maybe not burnout quite as quickly. Most importantly, you’ll remember why it is you do this work in the first place.”