A universal guide to compassionate care for your patients and yourself
by JUDITH M. STEIN, RDH
True confession. I am a closet Trekkie. Yes, I loved, and still do love, watching Star Trek. Growing up, I can vividly remember my hidden addiction to Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. I can still recall the incredible intelligence of Lieutenant Spock. Oh, how I deeply admired the gutsiness of Communication Officer Uhura and the life-saving skills of Dr. Leonard McCoy, also known as Bones. Yes, 40 years ago, not only did I want to save the world, I wanted to save the galaxy.
Well, it didn't take long to realize that I didn't hold the power to save the galaxy from eminent danger, let alone my loved ones from facing life challenges, crisis, and even death. Wired with an overabundance of empathy chromosomes in my DNA, I am often challenged with emotional attachment issues when those around me are struggling. To work as closely as we do with patients, and care about their dental and overall health as much as we do, this may be an issue many dental care professionals face also.
Whether you are early on in your career or a long-time veteran, I'm sure we have all said premature goodbyes to our favorite patients, dear friends, or even family members. Many of us have also cared for chronically ill patients or our own loved ones who have suffered through many challenges. So how do we manage to function during these periods of high stress and discomfort? How do we care for ourselves, our loved ones, and still provide the optimal treatment our patients require and deserve? How do we battle the emotional and physical fatigue at work while dealing with some of life's most difficult circumstances? Can we become more compassionate while providing care to our patients as well as ourselves? I believe we can.
Since every form of grief and hardship has a very personal element connected to deeper feelings, we can never presume to truly understand another's circumstances or emotions. We can, however, respectfully and humbly attempt to connect with others at a more compassionate level of understanding. It is with great reverence and tenderness that I offer the following to consider on this topic.
In the present day, we are surrounded by a plethora of wonderful books and resource materials devoted to compassionate care. I most recently came upon the book, "What Can I Say?" written by Simon and Karen Fox. You may have different resources you have leaned upon for strength and guidance during life's challenging times. Why not dust off those book covers and check them out from your community library again? Even if you or your patients are not currently facing a hardship, consider being proactive. Brush up (no pun intended) on your compassionate communication skills. But whatever you decide, I hope the following will offer you a universal guide to compassionate care. I hope you can integrate this information into your professional and personal lives. You may even discover a more comfortable communication style with all patients … a style that is more accepting and understanding … a style less fearful and more genuine. Maybe, just maybe, a more compassionate care style will spill over into your personal life as well.
The following are four simple suggestions that are easy to remember and plug in to your professional routines at work. I also tap into these guidelines when I need to self-evaluate my own needs. For I believe that the better care we offer ourselves, the more compassionate care we can give to others. To truly remain empathetic to yourself and those you serve, consider the following suggestions and application tools of compassion.
Focus. Focus. Focus. Give your full attention to the person you are serving, your coworkers, or yourself. Notice body language, watch facial expressions, and listen for verbal cues. You might discover that asking your dental patient more open-ended questions will initiate conversation topics your patient may feel more comfortable answering. You could also notice if the person is drawing attention to his or her own hardships. Do they need support, or are they diverting from sensitive issues and instead seeking privacy? Taking the time to really pay attention to someone else can become the foundation, the cornerstone, from which true compassion generously flows.
If you are enduring hardships yourself, it is critical to pay attention to your own physical needs as well. What are the signs and symptoms your body is expressing? Are you edgy, frightened, angry, and/or frustrated? Do you need more rest? More exercise? Do you need a listening ear? These attitudes are not trivial and should never be ignored. If you're caring for a loved one, you may need extra support caring for yourself. Don't hesitate to communicate your circumstances to your employer, your office manager, or a trusted friend. I would hope that by doing so, you would receive the needed support at work. You may also experience a renewed well of energy by sharing your hardships instead of keeping things quiet. There may not be easy answers to those concerns, but they are worth evaluating while you journey down a sometimes-painful road.
To acknowledge means to express respect and appreciation for a person as a unique individual. If you have truly paid attention to another person, this piece of the puzzle will be easier to connect with. Noticing something special about someone such as the sparkle in their eyes, the color of their purse, or even the firmness of their handshake may allow you entrance into their personal space. When you genuinely let someone know you have noticed something personal about them, compassion and trust will begin or continue growing in your relationship. If you are struggling to find this connection, try a few words of affirmation such as, "I'm really glad you are here today. My day is always brighter when you are a part of it, Mrs. Smith." Or how about, "I notice you have a little spring in your step this morning, Mr. Jones." Acknowledging your patient will validate that he or she was heard and noticed. Why not take a few moments at the end of your day to send a simple note of encouragement to the patient? This act of kindness can be a very powerful and direct way of affirmative communication. It communicates to another that you are paying attention, you are listening, and you care.
So how does the element of acknowledgement translate if you are the one facing hardships? For me, it began by admitting to myself the truth of my situation about what was happening to me and to my loved one. What were my physical, emotional, and spiritual needs? This self-discovery has the potential to take you on a very challenging journey though. I don't advise you travel alone. Find that trusted friend or spouse. Seek out professional support if you need it. Connect with your religious affiliation if possible. Personally, when I was finally able to acknowledge the hope and not the misfortune of my challenging situation, hope seemed to diffuse into other parts of my life. Focusing with a more hopeful attitude made it easier to respond to coworkers, dental patients, and my loved ones in a more upbeat manner. Making the choice to acknowledge my circumstances with a more hope-filled expression helped defuse my anger and frustration very gently. And yes, I believe hopeful energy tends to be contagious.
Showing affection to others is a very tender yet critical part of this process. If you've paid attention to the person you are serving, you have hopefully picked up on certain physical and emotional signals. Although I believe we should be very cautious to show any physical level of affection in a professional setting, we can still show very genuine affection through a simple smile, a gentle hug, or making heartfelt eye contact with another. I have also found that shaking someone's hand with both of my hands surrounding theirs tends to be an acceptable and comforting sign of compassion. A gentle high five to a young child can communicate a more playful sign of compassion. Very respectfully helping someone sit down or get comfortable in the dental chair is another opportunity to show genuine affection without invading another's personal space. Always being aware of another's pain level will help guide you while you show affection. When in doubt, always choose gentleness to help you express the most reverent and appropriate sign of compassionate affection.
Showing affection to yourself during times of stress and personal hardship will look and feel different for everyone. I am certainly not an expert in this area. In fact, if I were to be graded on personal affection, I don't think I would pass. I tend to stay too involved in saving the galaxy before I realize my own starship is sinking. It is for this reason that I feel passionate about encouraging others to pay more attention to their own needs in order to serve others more compassionately. Maybe connecting with a friend over coffee or committing to an exercise program that suits your schedule will reflect a tender element of affection toward yourself. There are several diverse support groups you could connect with to help bolster you along your journey. What about simply hugging your loved ones more often? This loving, powerful, and compassionate gesture can truly sustain and strengthen you during times of grief, stress, and personal challenges. I believe that love of self will cause compassionate love toward others to spring forth.
When I see genuine acceptance playing out, it is nonjudgmental, tolerant, and forgiving. It means you allow people to be just as they are and just as they aren't. Could you imagine a world where these values were expressed all the time, not just during times of hardship? What if we cultivated these attitudes in all areas of our lives? We could create a place where our coworkers, our patients, and our loved ones could feely talk about their hopes as well as their fears. Being accepting of another's situation does not mean we give up hope though. It just means we choose to accept someone right where they are at the present moment. They need not waste their precious energy trying to be who they are not. When a more compassionate connection is established, it opens the door to wholehearted communication with your dental patients. They know deep down that you truly care about their circumstances. They will trust your recommendations. They know you have accepted them just as they are, without judgment.
Translating acceptance to a personal level can also produce a more serene and hope-filled life for you during times of hardship. For me, unfortunately, I stayed frozen in fighter mode while my sister battled breast cancer for too long. It wasn't until the end of her life that I began to experience moments of acceptance, which led to eventual serenity. Looking back, I realize now that I lived and worked to the best of my ability during that time, but it sure wasn't pretty. I felt like Klingon warships were attacking me at every tangent of my life. It became very evident, though, that I couldn't spare my sister from this disease, but I could continue to live a more loving, accepting, and serene life myself. Hope will always exist even though it may just change in format or expression. Be kind, understanding, and forgiving of yourself. Realize you are living and working your best life. Release yourself from the hold of anger, judgment, or intolerance. Accept and love yourself, just the way you are in the present moment.
So, whether you have a patient who is dealing with a challenging life circumstance or find yourself walking through a galaxy of emotions, remember you are not alone. Reach out; don't isolate yourself or others. So much hope and healing can take place when we join together to create a more compassionate world. If I could, I would still wipe every tear off the face of this earth, but until that day happens, I won't run from people or their suffering. Remember, attention, acknowledge, affection, and acceptance … and may you live long and prosper. RDH
JUDITH M. STEIN, RDH, is a 1981 graduate of Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich. Judy has enjoyed a variety of professional opportunities in her hygiene career, is committed to lifelong learning, and is now employed in private practice. The author is an active volunteer in several professional, community, and faith organizations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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