Through the painful season of his wife’s death, Timothy deVries saw past caricatures of faceless health systems to recognize the rich culture of care surrounding patients, families and medical professionals.
One day in May, 2017, a doctor at St. Joseph’s hospital in Hamilton had the awful task of delivering an incurable cancer diagnosis to a pregnant, 40 year-old, mother. It was an appointment she had been dreading, since very few people are subject to a biopsy when they come into emergency for abdominal pain. Dr. N. oversaw most of the patients who came into emergency for abdominal ailments, though seldom, he admitted later, did they receive a diagnosis like the one he had just delivered to my wife.
Over the following months, we saw Dr. N. on several occasions. He came by the suite where Danielle was receiving iron transfusions, to check up on her and to say hi. He came by the surgical oncology ward following the operation she had to remove the tumour. And he left a heartfelt message on her blog when we posted news of her passing.
In all, it’s not how one might expect to be treated in a health care system where, one might suppose, nameless, faceless treatments are delivered to nameless, faceless patients. In fact, and as I learned since Danielle had been a nurse as well, there is a rich culture of care not only between patients and their caregivers, but between health care professionals themselves, with their patients, with their patient’s families, and with the communities of which they are a part.
These are the main three things that I learned by talking with Dr. N.:
1. By design, our health-care system does not deliver preferential care
The care Danielle received was exemplary and we couldn’t have asked her physicians and nurses for better care. But it’s natural to wonder if that is everybody’s experience. The short answer is that everyone is provided with the same level of professional care, regardless of who they are. Nevertheless, health care professionals respond to the level and urgency of need, as well as to the patient’s understanding of the care that is needed and provided. As a patient, time in the hospital can be a crash-course in medical concepts and terminology. Informing oneself, and respecting the expertise of your health care team, can make a difference in terms of how the level of care is perceived and experienced.
2. Family and community support can make a difference in the quality of care
Dr. N noticed that Danielle and our family were supported by many well-wishers; a supportive and caring community. But not many of his patients, very few in fact, could count on that level of support. Yet it makes a difference, both to patients and their health care team, whether the patient’s ‘support community’ includes health-care practitioners or is opposed to them. Health care professionals can do their job better when patients and their families are informed and asking good questions. It’s more difficult to deliver and receive good care when patients and their families identify their suffering with the people who are best able to help them recover.
3. Doctors, nurses, and other health professionals actually care about the people they treat
Healthcare is not a profession people enter for their own personal journey, but you can be sure your health care team is learning something from the way you are interacting with them. Many within healthcare are motivated by the earnest desire to help others, whether by reason of faith, compassion, or basic human interest in the welfare of others. Patients and their families who accept this are more likely to recognize their doctor or nurse is a person who sincerely desires the best possible outcome for them.
Paradoxically, these three principles may most easily be forgotten by those who ascribe all the powers of life, death and healing to their health care professionals, who are generally focused on treating the whole person, not just the disease.
We expect health professionals to refrain from identifying people with their illness in the same way that we expect them to be our best allies when we are sick. The limits of both should not preclude us from recognizing that the relationship between the health care professional and the patient involves human art and science in the service of physical healing. That healthcare is one of our greatest national expenditures testifies to the magnitude of our expectations about the nature of this relationship.
Danielle and I were especially grateful to Dr. N. for involving himself with her care in a personal and compassionate way. It put a human face on what was to become a long trial, and was a reminder for us not to lose our hope or humanity. While no one voluntarily signs up for an experience like this, there are different ways of approaching a difficult season in life. By grace, a patient, and his or her caregivers and family can be thankful for the care which has been received from their health care team.
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