Imagine being a 17-year old girl.
Okay, okay — sorry. I can hear the collective shudder from here.
Try again: Imagine being a 17-year old girl, and it’s 5:30 in the morning. You’ve been awake for an hour already, and you’re sitting in your very fashionable hospital gown in a small examination room in the surgery ward at Children’s Hospital. For some reason this body, which, as a dancer, you’ve staked your existence on, has started to betray you. For no apparent reason, your arm goes numb or cold, or you have a persistent dull ache for days at a time. It turns out you have a small skeletal abnormality which, if uncorrected, may rob you of the function of one of your arms.
And the means to correct the problem is for a doctor to make a small incision in your neck, reach in to your shoulder and, for lack of a better term, saw off the offending bone structure.
In other words, this is a scary moment. Even the knowledge that your surgeon, Dr. David Partrick, is one of the best in the country can’t stave off all the butterflies.
And then the first person to talk with you is Dr. Fernandez, who announces that she’s your anesthesiologist, which means she’s the person with all the good drugs. She’s pleasant, and personable, she makes jokes, and talks to you as if you’re actually in the room, and gets you to laugh and be at ease before giving you the “good stuff”.
When you wake up, the first person you see greets you with a smile, and a query about your pain. She reassures you that, should you need any “help” with the pain, she’s there for you.
Then you’re wheeled up to you room, where your nurse, Corrie, meets you. She tells you that she has doctor orders to follow, but that she listens to what you and your parents tell her, and she will make sure that you are as comfortable as you can be.
For the first two hours, she is in the room almost constantly, checking your vital signs and reading the displays, but mostly just talking to you and seeing how you’re doing.
It’s hard to know, in times like that, what sort of things are meaningful. I would have assumed that I, personally, would appreciate competence and science. But, in times like that, what a patient — what a parent — values more than you would have ever thought possible is the little kindnesses that each caretaker extended all along the way. From actually listening to you, to the periodic, surreptitious look in while she’s sleeping, to breaking into a slight jog to go get you a box of apple juice when she asks for it, or even the speedy callback and reassurance from Nurse Stephanie that she would take care of the insurance — these little touches matter a great deal. They make a difference.
I know, in this day and age, we’re all supposed to be about the metrics and the bottom line. But what I was starkly reminded of by my daughter’s experience at Children’s Hospital was that there is no metric that means as much as a simple act of kindness. We constantly underestimate the value of the little human touches, to our diminishment.
So, to Dr. Partrick, Dr. Goldberg, Dr. Fernandez, and especially to our nurses, Corrie and Stephanie: a simple, but very heartfelt, thank you. She’s doing just fine, thanks to you.
Michael Alcorn is a music teacher and fitness instructor who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. He graduated from Alameda High School and the University of Colorado-Boulder.