A few years ago, while I was driving away from my parents’ house, I noticed an ambulance pulling away from a nearby home. In the doorway of that house stood a little boy, hands pressed against the glass, staring at the ambulance that was transporting someone he loved.
I couldn’t make out his expression – the distance between my quickly passing car and his little face was too great – but, to this day, I still wonder what that youngster was thinking and feeling. Had his world just been shaken? Was it his mother who was being taken to the hospital? A sibling? A grandparent?
A little more than three years ago, we moved about an hour and a half away to a place I quickly coined it the “City of Ambulances” because – and I’m not exaggerating – I see at least one ambulance every day. I’ve been at my current job at a local hospital for almost a year, so I see medical helicopters almost daily, too. Even with that redundancy, the helicopters entrance me.
Ambulances usually mean bad news, but medical helicopters almost always spell life-and-death circumstances. Each time I see a helicopter start its propeller and lift off the ground, I wonder where it’s going, whose life is in danger and how that person’s family is hurting. When a helicopter lands on the hospital roof, similar thoughts rush through my mind. That trauma patient is someone’s someone. Someone’s whole world.
Because I am a storyteller, I am also a story craver. A knowledge seeker. When I can’t hear the patients’ stories myself, I imagine them.
It’s not just emergent patients I ponder, though. Every morning, on my way to my office, I stand by the elevator next to the MRI/PET scan waiting room. As I listen for that familiar ding and female robotic voice to say “Going up,” I glance at the patients in that room. I see a woman wearing a hat to cover up her bare head, which is bald from cancer treatments. I see a father clutching his daughter’s hand, as if he’s holding on to her very breath and life, willing the scans to show the doctors how to make her heart healthy.
In the cafeteria at lunch, I see an elderly man wearing a visitor tag. He’s not really hungry because his wife just had a stroke and was admitted to the hospital. But he knows he must eat, so he awkwardly shuffles through the line populated by in-a-hurry employees like me who don’t have time to be behind the man who doesn’t know what he wants. He sits down at a lonely table, mechanically places the food in his mouth and ponders if his life will ever be the same.
Working in a hospital has taught me many professional lessons about being a better communicator, writer and marketer. But the most important lesson I’m learning is a personal one. A hospital serves as a scaled down version of this world in which we live. The dichotomy. The give and take. The rejoicing and grieving. The blessings and the trials.
In one room, first-time parents are experiencing the indescribable joy of meeting their healthy newborn baby, while just down the hall in the NICU, another mom and dad are grieving at the loss of their infant, who had fought so hard.
Working in a place with thousands of other people, I know the employees have stories too. I imagine them in the hallways, in the elevator, in the parking lot, even.
I watch a secretary, who has been riding the infertility roller coaster for two years now, pass a pregnant nurse. Most days she is able to handle the sight of a baby bump, but, with all the Mother’s Day hubbub lingering, the hurt stings too much and her eyes tear up as she turns the corner.
I see an exhausted surgeon, still donning scrubs and a face mask around his neck. He leans against the wall and rubs his forehead while he discusses with a compassionate colleague what was supposed to be a routine operation gone wrong.
It is our natural reaction to go through life on our default setting, not considering the turmoil that might be raging in someone else’s heart. When I’m in a hurry to get out of work because I have to pick up Elliot from school, I could easily become annoyed with the person in front of me, who is ever so slowly pushing her someone in a wheelchair through the hallway. I could let out a sigh and power walk around them, passively letting them know they are in my way.
But I’m learning to say “No” to that annoyance – to have more compassion for people, to ask them if they need help finding something, to hold a door open for them, to let them go ahead of me in the cafeteria line. It takes practice and a conscious effort to do that. And, odd as it may sound, a hospital, whether you’re an employee, patient or visitor, is a great place to practice compassion.
Originally published on ovparent.com.