Sunday, September 28, 2003

Alive and well

Hospital workers deserve accolades for treating patients with respect

Debra Kendrick

When my daughter was 11, she broke her arm. In the emergency room, where she'd been many times before for her asthma, it seemed for a while that hospital workers were more interested in her lungs than in her broken bone. "I don't care about my lungs right now," she wailed while we waited alone in an examining room between inquiries. I knew how she felt.

Hospitals can be daunting for anyone, but particularly for those of us with a visible disability. Not only can strangers be distracted by it, but their wrong-headed attitudes can make a person feel marginalized, discounted. A blind man wrote to me a few months ago, enraged that a medical professional in an outpatient clinic assumed that he couldn't dress himself. A woman in a wheelchair wrote about the instruction that she "hop up" onto an examining table from her chair. And I have personally endured all too many encounters with workers in medical facilities who have talked around me, about me, or to me in a loud, slow, condescending style as though I might not know my own name.

So when not just one but a whole weeklong parade of hospital workers "get it right," I want to celebrate, congratulate and encourage others in the business to do likewise. At Cincinnati's University Hospital early this month, my stress was minimized and healing promoted by a remarkable cast of characters who, in addition to doing their jobs well, quickly understood my needs as a patient, a person who happens to have a disability. From the comedic anesthesiologist to my brilliant surgeon and all of the nurses, nurse assistants, residents, and other staff in between, everyone focused on the reason I was there, not on my blindness.

It's not rocket science, the sort of thing I'm talking about here. It's more like common sense, really. And yet, these simple acts of respect have been glaringly absent enough times in other medical contexts that their presence this time drew notice. I'm talking about things like this:

• When that sometimes endless parade of people - housekeeper, nurse assistant, resident with medical student in tow - came into my room, they always identified themselves and their reason for being there.

• When the subject at hand was my treatment, people spoke directly to me, not to other loved ones who were in the room.

• I was often asked whether I needed help or not, and if the answer was yes, allowed to explain exactly what was needed.

• Procedures were explained to me. (No one, in other words, just slapped a blood pressure cuff on my arm without telling me what was going to happen!)

• When I asked questions (which some might say was constantly), I was given the information I needed.

• In the case of equipment foreign to me - such as the mask used for anesthesia or the bag containing an extra unit of blood - no one questioned my need for hands-on examination to "see" for myself what the object was like.

If you haven't been in the vulnerable role of hospital patient lately, maybe these sound silly. If you haven't been patronized due to disability, they sound even sillier. The truth is, though, that these kinds of gestures, beyond their basic warmth and courtesy, can make a dramatic difference in overall recovery.

A hefty tumor has been lifted from my leg - and with it, it is believed, all of its tag-along malignant cells.

My gratitude for life and health grows daily, alongside the more tangible increased strength and stamina. That healing comes, I know, from many forces - the skill of physicians and technicians, the prayer and positive energy so many have expressed on my behalf, and the degree of trust I was able to place in the caring professionals at University Hospital.

Maybe they've had some training. Maybe they just happen to be a crew of particularly intuitive people. Whatever the reason for their consistently friendly approach, seeing a patient as a person is one healing technique that would do well to catch on elsewhere.

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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