When youve been the patient, its easy to see why human kindness is so essential to care

June 1, 1997
As I lay on the operating table in the famous Cleveland Clinic, a feeling of déjà vu came over me. This was my fifth major surgery in less than 18 months. It was getting old, and I was fighting to maintain a positive attitude. The anesthesiologist was about to render me unconscious with his potent intravenous brew when my surgeon walked in.

Joanne Iannone Sheehan, RDH

As I lay on the operating table in the famous Cleveland Clinic, a feeling of déjà vu came over me. This was my fifth major surgery in less than 18 months. It was getting old, and I was fighting to maintain a positive attitude. The anesthesiologist was about to render me unconscious with his potent intravenous brew when my surgeon walked in.

He was in the book that listed the best doctors in America, and I knew why. Dr. Victor Fazio was wearing surgical scrubs, a multi-colored surgical cap (for a little comic relief), and a big smile.

"Mrs. Sheehan," he said cheerfully, "how are you?"

I muttered something about wishing the doctor well, happy thoughts, and positive results on hopefully my last operation. I had been a difficult case from the beginning, but even my uncooperative digestive system couldn`t discourage this doctor. As the anesthesia was turned loose to do its work, the doctor took my hand and held it until I was out.

The last thing I remember was his caring eyes looking down at me and skilled hands offering strength and courage to one who was running low on both.

The human touch is an element that is sadly lacking in the health professions today. All too often, in an effort to be technically correct and emotionally detached, healthcare givers lose the ability to relate to the patient as a fellow Homo sapien.

`Tunnel vision` blocks out view of pain

Months before, I had been treated by a doctor who deemed it vain for a girl to want to wash her hair after 11/2 weeks in a hospital bed. In his tunnel vision, this doctor saw the patient as a procedure to be done, an unhealthy colon that needed to be removed. He was unable (or unwilling) to look further and see a person who was desperately trying to hold on to what was left of her dignity.

Some patients want to give at least an illusion that everything is OK, to look normal, in control, and on the mend. A positive attitude and self-image is needed for good healing and a thorough shampooing was needed for both my hair and my psyche.

Eleven years ago, we were told that our only son, then 8 months old, had cerebral palsy. The news was hard enough to take, but the neurosurgeon who made the diagnosis couldn`t have been more unfeeling or insensitive. His cold, matter-of-fact attitude and poor prognosis for the future left us both so devastated that my husband and I couldn`t even talk to each other the entire 45-minute ride home. We were shattered.

Yet, when we took our son to the orthopedic surgeon for his prognosis, he laughed and said, "Look at your baby! He`s standing with the help of a chair, he`s bouncing, smiling, and looking for trouble! Cerebral palsy is brain damage, and everybody has a little of that to some degree. Some people can`t chew gum and tie their shoes at the same time. You should see me play tennis! Occupational therapy will help with his fine motor skills. It`s a mild case, right side hemi-paresis. He`s a healthy baby; treat him like a normal kid."

Then he added with a smile, "Now get out of here, so I can treat someone who really needs me!"

We laughed and left that clinic feeling like a huge weight had been lifted. Our baby would be all right, and we would make sure he had that therapy the doctor recommended. Eleven years later, our son is an active sixth grader involved in archery, video games, and e-mail. He plays coronet in the seventh grade band. He is in a left-handed world, but that hasn`t kept him from playing baseball Jim Abbott style, running up and down a soccer field, or riding a bike.

The difference between these two health professionals, both leading men in their fields, is that one could only deliver a diagnosis, a poor prognosis, and a lot of sentences beginning with, "He`ll never be able to..." The second doctor offered hope, a treatment plan, encouragement, and even a bit of levity. What a difference!

A kind word works wonders with dental phobias

As a dental hygienist working in a periodontal office, I have drawn from my experiences with all these health professionals to try to give my patients the best care I can. That includes the best and most comfortable deep cleaning I can give, a kind word, a smile, and instructions on how to keep optimal dental health. I am fortunate to work with a staff and doctor who share my philosophy on patient treatment.

Once, just seated, a new patient broke into tears in my chair because of her fear of the unknown, anxiety about possible surgery, and bad memories of childhood experiences in the dental chair. A time out was needed to allay fears, explain the cleaning procedure, and empathize with her. I let her know I understood why she felt the way she did and why she had stayed away from the dentist for so long.

I told her that she was in control. She could stop the cleaning at any time by raising her hand. This appointment was a new beginning in dentistry for her. I had to gain her trust and proceed slowly, encouraging, praising, and basically just being human. I wanted to be perceived as someone she could relate to, not be afraid of.

My favorite response to fearful patients is, ODon?t be afraid, it?s only me!O

Translation: There is a real, feeling person in these OSHA regulation glasses, mask, gloves and smock, ready to take very good care of you. Hey, I?m human too!

That fearful patient came back for deep cleanings of all four quadrants and even went through the perio surgery she desperately needed. I was the first one to treat her after she finally got up enough courage to make and keep the appointment. If I had not shown a little human kindness, I wonder what would have happened. Today, she wears a big smile. Her teeth were saved.

Health professionals in dental and medical fields need to get in touch with their human side. I believe every healthcare giver should first be a patient to get a different perspective on things, the patient?s view. The movie, The Doctor, really hit the nail on the head. It depicts a cold and insensitive doctor who was diagnosed with cancer and became the patient. The experience changed his life.

We owe the patient a little human kindness. A smile won?t take any time from your busy schedule. It should be included in the patient?s treatment plan. Why is the phrase Owarm and professionalO so alien to us?

Joanne I. Sheehan, RDH, graduated from the State University of New York at Farmingdale in 1974 and has practiced dental hygiene in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and Alabama. She has taught in North Carolina and worked for the Army as a dental hygienist in Germany for three years. She is currently working for Dr. Richard Tami, a periodontist in Woodbridge, Va.