April Moments

Maybe, just maybe, telling the story is just as important as the story itself

The patient experience from a journalist turned PR specialist

Nine years ago I went from being a newspaper reporter to working in public relations. Even though it is fairly common for a journalist to make this leap, many newsies still view it as selling one’s soul or, at the very least, going to the “dark side.”

I was a 25-year-old newlywed at the time, and, quite honestly, I really didn’t care what my co-workers thought. My new public relations position would mean working day shifts, enjoying a summer break and not being on duty weekends or holidays. To me, it was a no-brainer.

All that said, there is something special about working in a newsroom. Those two and a half years I spent as a journalist bring back mostly good memories. I was forced out of my introvert comfort zone in many ways. I had to make cold calls. I had to meet new people and make small talk. I had to ask hard questions.

One of the best parts – if not the best part – was being surrounded by other writers, other journalists, other storytellers. I know I’ve written about it before, but we storytellers are different. Not better or worse. Just different. I believe we see the world differently, and spending time with other people who love a great story when they see or read one – even if it does not have a happy ending – doesn’t happen in every environment. I hate to keep saying it’s special because that’s such a cheesy word. But it is. It’s special, darn it.

Fast forward to today. I still work in public relations. And wouldn’t you know I am lucky enough to again be surrounded by a group of storytellers. Most of them have, at one time, been real, working members of the press, and all of them are what I call journalists at heart.

Working in public relations can be difficult because it means means seeing the good and the bad – er, I mean the areas for improvement – in an organization. This is why many hard core journalists refuse to make the leap into PR. Some hate coming up with a positive “spin” because it feels forced or lame or just downright, well, false.

Truth be told, the spin doctoring does happen. But I don’t think that’s a secret. Most people know that’s a part of public relations. And there were times when I was a journalist that I felt as though certain stories I wrote were spin-doctored. Why? Because not all the stories I was assigned were that interesting. At least not to me. Being a storyteller, even as a newspaper reporter, still means finding the angle.

But back to PR. I currently work in healthcare communications and marketing. So when I started having some minor concerns about a certain area of my health, I turned to my own employer’s healthcare providers. I found out I needed to have a short procedure that would require general anesthesia. The doctor called it a same-day surgery, but I prefer the term procedure because I knew there was not going to be an incision. Anyway, this meant I would be a surgery patient on the very hospital campus where I work every day.

Let me tell you, it’s one thing to promote the work people do, but it’s a totally different thing to be on “the other side,” at the mercy of those people’s hands. Some of the folks who helped take care of me made small talk, and it’s natural to ask what one does for a living. No one seemed fazed by my employment in the marketing department of the hospital. Which is exactly appropriate. I didn’t want to be treated differently than any other patient. In fact, that is part of the “spin” in healthcare marketing – to respectfully provide compassionate care to all people, no matter who they are or where they work.

I am guessing that much of the medical care employees provide is routine, but patients like me are not accustomed to being on that “side.” For example, when I was in labor with my son – at a different hospital – I remember between pushes, the doctor and the nurses were carrying on regular conversation. They talked about bathing the dog, going for a jog, taking a shower. And all I could think was, HELLOOOOOO, I am about to have the most life-changing moment of my life here. How can everyone in this room not be FREAKING OUT? I’ll tell you why. Because catching babies is standard procedure for them. They do it every day, multiple times a day.

When I had my procedure three weeks ago, and the nurse said she was going to start an IV, I piped up with, “HOLD THE PHONE, LADY. Last time I had an IV was when I was in labor with my daughter, and the first nurse couldn’t find a vein, and then a second nurse tried. And they ended up sticking me several times. And I was having very strong contractions sitting upright on the hospital bed. It was terrible.”

Blank stare from the nurse. Probably because it was clear I am not pregnant and, therefore, not in labor.

“Maybe you were dehydrated, and that’s why they couldn’t find a vein right away,” the nurse said.

“Could’ve been.” Pause. “You promise you’re only going to stick me once?”

“Yes.” She was confident, so I believed her. And it turned out to be no problem.

The other sideBeing on “the other side” is so interesting. I mean, of course I want the medical professionals taking care of me to be experts in what they do. But even if they are, there are still nerve-wracking moments of unfamiliarity. I know you do this every day, but I am scared because this is all new to me.

When I started working in public relations, I was so thankful for the experience of being a newspaper reporter. It taught me news writing style. It gave me insight into how to successfully get a release to be “picked up.” It allowed me to explain to my co-workers some of the reasons why a release didn’t make the cut.

The world is full of experts. And I don’t mean that in a negative or sarcastic way. I love learning new concepts and discussing new ideas with people who know more than I do. The problems come when 1) I feel discouraged because learning new things makes me realize how many things I don’t know, and 2) I have to put my confidence in someone else’s expertise and knowledge, like in the medical field. I try to learn all I can about my own health and my family’s health, but ultimately, being under general anesthesia and having a surgical procedure are not skills I can Google and be ready to perform.

Venturing to “the other side” can be nerve-wracking. But I think doing so makes us realize that there is always new information to learn, always a new perspective to gain. We can feel defeated by it or be motivated by it.

One unexpected lesson I learned: When the pre-op paperwork says “No nail polish,” I believe it is referring to fingernails only, not toenails. The hospital staff gave me socks – the kind with grippies on the bottom! – so I’m pretty sure I could’ve left my painted toenails in tact. Very important information.


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