Updated: Oct 30, 2017
On the first day of Kindness Week we would like to introduce Rosie Keely who has written a beautiful reflection on the power of words to uplift or damage us during times of vulnerability and illness.
Rosie manages a service focussing on complaints and consumer engagement in a child and adolescent health service. She is a passionate researcher and advocate for a patient and family centred care approach to health care, with a specific interest in how empathy and kindness improves both the patient and family and staff experience. Here are her thoughts on the importance of kindness in her work.
Game of Tones
In the words of JK Rowling, 'words...are our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.' For author Jodi Picoult, 'words are like eggs, dropped from great heights, you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.' If, as philosophy theory suggests, language creates reality, then the words that we use have the power to shape that reality in a myriad ways.
Over years working in the health care environment (in a non-clinical capacity), I've had the privilege of assisting patients and their families; helping them navigate the complexity of a health care system where words can make the difference between a good or bad experience. Many times I’ve witnessed how words have uplifted and energised or defeated and frustrated people at their most vulnerable. There are two stories in particular where words have distressed parents at a time when anxiety and emotions were already running high. I’ve thought about these stories a lot and they remain indelibly marked in my memory.
One day last year I was asked to call the father of a very sick baby girl. By coincidence he had shared a hospital lift with the consultant in charge of his daughter's care, whom he had not previously met. To his horror he overheard her tell a group of junior doctors that they wouldn't be visiting his baby on the ward that day because she (the consultant) had 'given upon her.’
I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared to ring anyone, ever. I told my colleagues I was making a difficult call and I closed my office door. I steeled myself to make the call to this Dad, convinced that this would surely be the biggest bollocking I'd ever received; but this was not to be. The kindness this Dad extended to me shocked me and brought me to tears. As the adrenalin left my body, I felt both relieved that I wouldn't have to bear the brunt of his anger and vitriol and felt profound sadness (and anger) that he (and his loved ones) were ever exposed to such a lack of compassion and kindness.
Then there was the time when a Mum wrote a five page letter to tell us another awful and unfortunate story where words cut deep and emotions lay bare. She told us about her little boy (let’s call him Tom) who had a potentially life limiting condition and, not surprisingly, didn't like hospital very much. He'd had months of being poked and prodded and always cried when he came to hospital. However, on this particular day, Captain Starlight was blowing up balloons with Tom as he and Mum waited in the outpatients department. Mum tells how happy he was and how relaxed he seemed, which was a pleasant change for them both. Time marched on (I don't know how long) and Tom was finally called to the clinic room by the consultant. Mum speaks of gathering up her bags as she watched Captain Starlight tie off the tyrannosaurus rex balloon and hand it to her son and how they made their way consultant's door. She doesn't say how long this took - perhaps it was 10 seconds, perhaps 30, but she was greeted with, 'well, you've taken your time getting here, I've got far sicker children than yours to see here today.' This Mum then told us she wanted to 'flee' but explained that this isn't like 'retail, you can't just shop somewhere else.' She referred to the consultation as a confrontation and how she and her son both ended up in tears.
One of the questions to ask about the actions and words of the health professionals involved in these two situations is what's going on for them? Why, in a caring profession, does there seem to be such a lack of care? In health care we need to be aware of the words we're using and practice the language that serves us and others. We owe this not only to patients and their families, but also to each other.