Empathy in an Unexpected Experience – A Patient’s Story

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We always knew we wanted three kids. I don’t know if we wanted to be outnumbered for some sick reason or if just wanted to beat the national average (it’s 2.1 kids right?). So imagine our joy when our two little girls were ages five and two, and I found out that I was pregnant again! I texted a picture of the pregnancy test results to my husband. He met me for lunch to celebrate!

The next week our oldest was scheduled to have her tonsils out. It was a BIG deal at our house! The night before her surgery I started bleeding…I knew it wasn’t a good sign.

I can still see where I was standing in the bathroom when I made the conscious decision to do nothing. I knew that the cycle time in the ED was four hours and that would put me home well after midnight. I wanted to be fresh and ready to take my daughter in for surgery at 6 AM the next morning.

When we got to the Children’s hospital the following morning, my five year old chose bubble gum for the “flavor” of her mask for the anesthesia. This picture was taken of her during the pre-op process when she was still pretty excited about it all. Oh those wild and beautiful curls! A few moments later, though, it got really serious, for me. There’s nothing as hard as reassuring your scared child in the OR and then having her go limp in your arms… “asleep.” It sickened me and I was a wreck.

15 minutes later the surgeon phoned us in the waiting room and told us that the surgery was done, and she was fine and was headed to recovery. That’s when I finally called my OB.

I managed to see my daughter briefly in recovery and then went to have an ultrasound. I left my husband in the recovery room with my daughter and walked over to radiology at the hospital.

The ultrasound tech looked at the image on the screen and asked me a strange question. She asked who was there with me. I explained the situation and that my husband was over with my daughter who just had surgery. I added that I was going back right after the ultrasound.

She mumbled something about the fact that she didn’t think I’d be going right back.

After the ultrasound, I was sent to see my OB who shared with me that I had an ectopic pregnancy. I tried to wrap my brain around the fact that this pregnancy was ending. They were trying to help me understand how serious this was if they didn’t do something quickly.

I remember three things that happened after that:

  1. My cell phone died and I had no way to charge it, so I was making gut wrenching calls to my husband and my mom from the OB’s clinic phone. I was all alone.
  2. My OB personally escorted me across campus to the ED, very, very quickly. We took stairways and back hallways that I had never seen before! When we got to the ED, I secretly envied the people waiting in the waiting room who weren’t as “acute” as I was at that moment.
  3. The nurse in the ED – I don’t remember any other care givers from that day. Just her. She had short sandy brown hair, glasses, and in my memory, a British accent!

Laying on the gurney in the room, I faced a lonely hallway near the ambulance entrance. The computer was attached to the wall so the nurse had to have her back to me as she asked me questions and entered information into the computer. She went through her routine questions and then asked “Was this a ‘tried for’ pregnancy?”

I couldn’t hold back the sniffle when I answered, “Yes.”

What she did next, I’ll never forget.

She left her computer and came to my side. She knelt down to get at eye level with me at the bed and she touched my arm. She gave me a Kleenex.

I don’t remember what she said but I do remember what she did.

I will never forget the comfort, empathy, and support that her simple gesture of stopping everything and coming to just be present in that moment, meant. She was truly present and with me on what was the toughest, most unexpected day of my life.

I share this patient’s story, my personal story, to underscore the fact that for the staff and physicians of the Emergency Department (and beyond), the challenge is not usually having, but demonstrating empathy to patients and families. Empathy is not always grand gestures and long, drawn out conversations. What empathy requires is being present, truly listening, and then having the courage to respond in some way.

In addition to empathy, there are a variety of specific behaviors that staff and physicians can do to make a big difference to patients and families. In our next blog in this Unexpected Experience series, we’ll take a look at more of them.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, my story does have a happy ending.  A little over a year after this unexpected experience, we welcomed a healthy baby boy into our family! We did end up getting those 3 kids we always wanted.

Janiece Gray

Janiece Gray

I began my career as a social worker and later, with my Master of Health Administration (MHA), directed operations at Allina Health in Minnesota. I later directed patient experience at Allina. My background and experience give me strengths in approaching healthcare opportunities and challenges through a systems lens – with unique strengths, challenges and activation points. My experience is also informed by leadership roles leading performance improvement in patient-centered care and patient experience departments. Working in the client role with healthcare consulting firms inspired me to address some unmet needs in the industry, and to co-found DTA Associates. I have a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and find that the discipline of practice translates to healthcare work very well.

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