I Am a Person, Not a Number

The following poem was written in an October, 2013, Re-Igniting the Spirit of Caring workshop by Rachel Coggeshall, Stephanie Dyer, Terry Krause, Cindy McDonnald, Dena Moyer, and Nerissa Vahle, and is reprinted here with permission.

I am a person, not a number.

Blood sugars and vital signs,
All I want is more of your time.
I am a person, not a number.

As I call you on my light,
I am Sarah, not the room on the right.
I am a person, not a number.

My lab values are off, my acuity is high,
I’m really scared; do you think I might die?
I am a person, not a number.

Am I asking too much that you sit with me a while?
All I need is your friendly smile.
I am a person, not a number.

Staffing grids, patient loads, IV’s to hang, a heavy load.
I am a caregiver, not a number.

Q & A: Acceptance vs. Judgment

NOTE:  Through a happy coincidence, Michael and I worked on answers for the same question at the same time. The next two posts are in answer to the same question.  We think you’ll find that we’ve taken very different routes to the same conclusion!
~ Mary Koloroutis

I read in See Me as a Person that [the therapeutic practice of] “wondering…is accepting not judging.” How do we do that when sometimes we’re just flooded with judgment?

Michael-Trout-150x150Of course we are! We’re human beings with our own experiences (which have led us to create narratives about how the world is supposed to work), our own values, even our own thoughts/dreams/expectations about how people (including ourselves) ought to behave.

So let’s just get this part out of the way:  judgment is natural.  

You won’t be shot for it, and doing it (judging) doesn’t make you a lousy nurse (or doctor or aide or dietary worker or…). Being “flooded” (what a great word you chose!) merely means that your story about the world—or your values—is, at this moment, being sorely challenged, if not violated, by the person in front of you. Something inside is screaming:  “No!  You’re not supposed to act that way!” or “Do you not see how stupid that behavior/point of view/attitude is? My dad taught me that only low-life [or ignorant or thoughtless or unprincipled] people think (or act) like that!”

But it turns out that many of the things we normally do or feel—while completely understandable and quite acceptable in everyday life—are counter-productive in health care. Judging of other folks is one of them.

Our work is a “discipline”; it calls for us to do not what comes naturally, but what is called for in the situation.

The surgeon may like to wear a particular perfume (or dangly jewelry), and does so in everyday life. But she has learned that this may not be in the best interests of the patients she treats. Some may have allergic reactions to the perfume, and there’s always a risk that a piece of jewelry will fall into a body cavity or otherwise get in the way of the surgical work she is called upon to perform today. So she goes against what she wants to do, what she normally does, what is most comfortable for her to do, because the best interests of the patient call for it.

Feeling judgment about the behavior or attitude of a patient or family member comes naturally to us. But we know that when judging begins, wondering stops. And when wondering stops, so stops our discovery of this human being we’re treating. When discovery stops, everything stops: data-collection, catching on to the nuances of the disease, our capacity for empathy. We stop having fun, and we stop having a relationship.

If we want these things, we will begin with accepting ourselves as health care people who, like all other human beings, have the impulse to judge. Then we use a quiet momentary meditation to re-focus ourselves on the task at hand and the person in front of us. We don’t have to like this person,  but we do have to connect with him, because this is the way healing works.

I volunteer at a women’s prison in a program for mothers. These women have done nasty stuff. In the process, they hurt lots of people around them, not the least of which are their own children, who are now without parents, as many of the dads are in prison, too.  Several of them in my group have had babies while they are in prison. Nobody gets out of this unscathed.

But I go there to listen. I go there to see if there’s any way on earth to mitigate the damage to the lost children of these moms. I go there, in other words, for the same reasons you go to work at your hospital or clinic every day: because that’s where the sick people are. They probably know I judge them; after all, they can’t help but notice the big difference between the nice suit I show up in and the crummy prison garb they show up in. As we begin, it seems that the only thing I have to give is wonder. Where did you come from? What’s your greatest fear about what is happening to your kids? Why—no, I mean, really why—do you keep making the same mistakes over and over again? If I ask these things while judging, I get nothing. If I ask them while wondering, I get stories—gut-wrenching, real stories that actually do throw some light on the problem. In the telling of these stories, the prison mothers begin to hear themselves; they begin to discover answers, and they begin to imagine what it would be like to live differently—for the kids, at least, if not for themselves.

I walk away from that place changed, every time. I’ll bet you do too, when you’ve had a day in which wonder replaced judgment, if only for a minute.

~ Michael Trout