“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
-Henry David Thoreau
The morning schedule was busy with patients who needed physical therapy reassessments and evaluations. This meant writing two notes per patient, testing each patient and “extra” brain work to analyze the test scores. The headache from the early morning antics at home was growing and I was getting hungry; a dangerous combination. A quick chart review revealed that my next patient had been moody at his last therapy visit. “Fantastic!,” I thought to myself as I begrudgingly walked out to the waiting room to call the moody patient back into the busy clinic.
Usually I perform the physical testing prior to performing the patient questionnaire that asks standardized questions of patients to help create benchmarks regarding changes in their function, as well as to help predict outcomes. Since the patient was visually impaired, I had the additional pleasure of reading the questions to him. His answers were long-winded and often did not answer the question being asked. Hungry, in pain and tired now of redirecting him, I was doing my best to remain calm while inside I was screaming in my head. Yes, now I was moody.
One of the questions asked about driving, and being tired, hungry and in pain I read it without even thinking about it. The patient calmly replied, “Did you know about my wife? She use to drive me to my appointments. I lost her last month unexpectedly.” Talk about being instantly humbled. My countenance quickly turned around (and around some more).
From that point on I asked few questions. Instead, I just sat there with the patient and listened to him talk while remaining as present in each moment as I possibly could. No wonder this man was moody! He had unexpectedly lost his wife of 59 years. “I heard a thud and I didn’t realize that she had fallen from a heart attack.” So he was not only grieving for her loss, he was also blaming himself for it.
Yes, of course I cried. I cried tears of sadness for his loss, while grieving my own losses. Some tears were shed in envy. Here I am in the process of separating from my husband of 15 years and this man has lost his spouse of 59 years (I wanted a lift partner, I thought to myself). Other tears were from guilt for having dreaded working with this man and for having judged him difficult before knowing his story. Add to that the shame of not feeling compassion for the patient until he had a heart-wrenching story to tell, thus deviating from my ideals.
At this point I moved into gratitude and wiped away my tears and did my best to verbally acknowledge his suffering. Then I asked his permission to share his feelings with his referring physician.
It can be such a challenge to know what someone else is going through. Sometimes we see someone who is having a bad day and we know not why. In this situation, I was given the gift of an inside glimpse into this man’s life that helped to put him being moody into perspective.
The patient seemed genuinely grateful for the time we spent together today. I know I was grateful and expressed my gratitude to him, as it was another lesson for me to remind me of compassion, unconditional love and that you never really know what someone else may be going through until you walk in his shoes.
Here is a link to a really great ad for The Cleveland Clinic that I feel exemplifies this concept. The video begins with the Thoreau quote from above: