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Humans, not Heroes

Similar to air travel, hospital appointments are best if they are uneventful. Flying is a relief when it is boring and nothing goes wrong. I’m not looking for a fantastic, first class experience when I step into a hospital. I only want things to go fairly smoothly and to be okay. Okay is my standard here.

I want to talk about ordinary appointments in health care. These ordinary appointments don’t cause any emotional harm and the physical harm is minimized as much as possible. Most appointments are just regular ones. Patients mostly talk about experiences that were exceptional or one that went really badly. My book is chock full of both. Nobody talks about the average ole appointment - and sadly, nobody asks patients about their appointments either. There are learnings in the ordinary.

Perhaps there would be less stress on health care folks if they strived for ordinary instead of perfect. Aiming for perfect seems to put a lot of pressure on clinicians to be superheroes every single time. I don’t want my caregivers to be heroes. I want them to be human instead.

Today I had one of my regular cancer scans. There’s a convoluted tale about how my appointments were scheduled, cancelled, scheduled, cancelled and scheduled again because of COVID and how this diagnostic scan is five months late. I understand it is a gong show in cancer care because of COVID. My only request is that cancer hospitals would be more proactive with telling us what is happening and why, instead of me having to spend hours on the phone chasing down my appointments. I believe that most patients would be understanding of the COVID situation if you only communicated with us instead of leaving us in the dark.

Despite this blip, my imaging appointment was uneventful. It was a boob-squishing mammogram (8 times squish the boob, ouch) so I wasn’t looking forward to the discomfort and pain. My husband and son drove me to the hospital and dropped me off so I didn’t have to fight through Vancouver rush hour traffic alone. (I wasn’t allowed any visitors to come in with me. I didn’t want my family sitting in a germy hospital anyhow, so that’s fine). I was early so I walked around the block a couple of times and practiced my calm breathing through my mask.

This was my first time in a hospital since the pandemic. Two screeners were at the door and asked me all the regular COVID questions. I wasn’t keen on taking the elevator, so I asked where the stairs were. One of the screeners escorted me to the stairwell.

I’ve been to the hospital many times before, so I knew the drill. Check in was quick and I took my spot in the waiting room. There was another lady there, so I smiled underneath my mask and said hello. The lights were dim. Soft pop music was playing. Many of the seats were blocked off with a sign so patients didn’t sit too close together. There were many COVID signs in a bunch of different languages taped to the walls. Most staff walking around in the halls were wearing masks, which made me feel safe.

A mammogram tech came out and introduced herself by name and showed me into a little room so I could change into my gown. ‘Did you wear deodorant?’ she asked me and luckily I remembered not to. I still don’t get why you can’t wear deodorant because nobody has explained it to me, but whatever.

I went into the room with the intimidating mammogram machine. I hate that boob squishing device. The mammogram tech chatted with me to distract me. I asked her about her schooling. Distraction helps. She also told me what she’s about to do, which minimizes my anxiety because I can anticipate what’s coming next. She made sure I’m covered up with my gown so I’m not standing there half-naked in the middle of the room.

She released the tension in the machine in between images, which I appreciated because I'm shoved in awkward positions in the machine and it hurts. She has a gentle manner and this keeps me calm.

Afterwards, I sit for a long time in the waiting room while the radiologist looked at my images. I’ve noticed that most radiologists are invisible and they send out the mammogram techs to do the dirty work of talking to patients. Finally, I'm told that my doctor will get my report in two weeks. I’m free to go.

Off I went. My boys got take-away ramen for a treat and we drove home and ate our noodles in the sunshine at our dining room table.

I think even the ordinary appointment is worth documenting. I don’t expect fancy hotel service at the hospital, I really don’t. These seemingly-small things the mammogram tech did were big things to me:

1. Introducing herself by name

2. Chit chatting with me to establish a connection

3. Telling me what she was doing as she did it

4. Reducing discomfort and pain

5. Ensuring I kept my dignity by minimizing my nakedness

6. Telling me afterwards what was going to happen next

Her gentle manner, the soft music and lighting were bonuses. I always think of myself as a wounded animal every time I walk into the cancer hospital. Why not make the experience slightly more pleasant to not agitate patients even more? That simply seems like a nice thing to do. I think us cancer patients can be especially skittish and prone to medical PTSD.

Now I’m back home and all I can do is wait for my doctor to call me when she has my report. Has my cancer returned? I don’t know. But I’m not feeling stressed or traumatized and will work to remain calm while waiting for my results.

What I needed today was a human patient experience, not a perfect one. This little story might not be newsworthy, but this is the type of tender treatment that is repeated in a hospital a thousand times every day. I’m grateful for the staff who treat patients gently and with care just as a part of their ordinary workday. This matters. You matter. Thank you.


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