Today, I couldn’t help but think about how events in history shape and define us. For each generation, there has been a major historical event or time in history that people remember as having irrevocably changed their lives.
For my children’s generation, and for most of us, we remember where we were and what we were doing the morning of September 11, 2001, when two planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and two others into the Pentagon and a small town in Pennsylvania. It was the single largest loss of life from a foreign attack on American soil and a day we would never forget.
My generation remembers the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was a leader who could inspire and motivate people, and we can tell you exactly where we were when we heard the news on November 22, 1963. My parent’s generation remembers Pearl Harbor Day—it was just before eight o’clock in the morning on December 7, 1941, when hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. The next day, the U.S. joined World War II. And for my grandparent’s generation, it was the Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as Black Tuesday. In the aftermath, America and the rest of the industrialized world spiraled into the Great Depression, the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in history up to that time.
In all of these instances, the world changed and so did we. But just as our lives can be shaped by world events, we are also shaped by personal life experiences. We are shaped by happy occasions that become memories we hold dear, like the day we met our best friend or spouse, or the birth of a child or a grandchild. We are shaped by events that whisk us down paths we had not anticipated or wanted, like the death of a loved one or a life-changing health diagnosis. We are shaped by temporary events, like recovering from a storm or healing from an injury. Even though we may fully recover, we are yet changed by our experience.
Even witnessing the life events of others can be transformational. Early in my career in hospital administration, I had a defining moment that changed me forever. Since that time, I have approached my work and my outlook on my day in a completely different way. I want to share that experience with you.
It was after seven o’clock one evening, as I was packing up my “homework” in my office. In my mind, it had been a terrible day. I don’t recall what had made it so terrible, but I do remember I was glad it was over. I was in a pretty bad mood. My office was on the second floor, so I took the stairs down one flight to the main lobby. As I pushed open the door, I noticed a young family seated in the lobby. I could see the mother was a cancer patient. She wore a scarf on her head and was surrounded by the tubes connected to her IV pole. A man who appeared to be her husband was seated across from her, and there were three children sitting on the floor around them. They were all smiling and laughing.
I stopped in my tracks. Suddenly, I felt very selfish. Here I was in a bad mood, completely focused on the terrible day that I had, while there was a family sitting before me who had every reason to think and act like they were having a bad day, but they were smiling and enjoying each other’s company. I decided right then and there I was not going to have bad days at work anymore. I realized that my attitude about each day was based only on my perspective, not reality. As long I remembered the reason I came to work each day—to help others take care of our patients in the best possible way—then all of my days would be good days.
I also realized that I had a responsibility to carry myself in a positive way, because our patients were counting on all of us. Winston Churchill once said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” I know from my own experience as a patient that when we are not well, we tend to be more focused on ourselves than we are normally. The same applies to family members preoccupied by concerns about a loved one. That’s why our patients and families need us to stay focused on them, and they want us to be supportive, understanding and compassionate. The interactions they have with us largely determine how they perceive the quality of their experience.
I recently received a letter from a family member that demonstrates how everyone on the care team, from those who deliver care to those in supporting roles, like financial services, makes an impact:
“Thank you for all of your help with my mother-in-law’s account. I have been taking care of the financial needs for my father-in-law since he is taking care of my mother-in-law now until she passes…I want to let you know how appreciative we have all been during this very difficult time. [My mother-in-law] will most likely pass away any day now, and it has been very difficult for my wife and father-in-law, as you could imagine…Everyone that was providing care for her has been absolutely amazing. We could have asked for a better outcome but not better care or service. I will never forget our time in Galveston at the hospital and how impressed I was with the care [she] got. Thank you.”
I know how busy you all are, and I appreciate the work that you do to make sure that we are caring for our patients in the best possible way:
- For those of you in direct patient care who are having the busiest of days but still take time to lend an ear to a patient in need of support or to share a few words of encouragement, thank you.
- For those who finish the day having met the needs of your patients only to face an evening of documentation or a long list of emails and MyChart messages, thank you. Please be assured that we have heard your concerns and are working hard to improve our processes and systems so that you will be able to spend more time with your patients and your families.
- For those who see a colleague in need of assistance and come to their aid, thank you.
- For those who answer phone calls and do all that you can to help a patient get an appointment scheduled or a question answered, thank you.
- For every smile you give, or every time you stop to give directions or help a patient or family member to their destination, thank you.
This day of the year reminds us of the fragile and unpredictable nature of life. Thank you to each and every one of you who comes to work each day ready to support our patients and their families, sharing in the joyful moments, as well as the sorrowful ones. We never know when that kind gesture or swift and skillful intervention will be the defining moment in someone’s life.