During my years as a patient advocate, I learned a lot about people. Patients and their families were some of my greatest life teachers. One of the first things I learned in my days of advocacy was that the term “difficult people” would be more aptly labeled “difficult situations.” When people are caught in a complex situation, they can appear difficult. To resolve a problem, you must first understand the situation.
A nurse on one of the neurology floors asked to meet with me about the husband of a patient. They told me he was writing down things in a little book he carried in his shirt pocket. In fact, he would sometimes go to where their names were listed on a board and copy them into his little book. He never spoke a word to anyone and never smiled, just watched. This had been going on for a couple of days and they found it unnerving and somewhat threatening. His wife didn’t seem unhappy with her care in any way, so what was going on? Would I visit with them and see if they might tell me of any problems?
I paid Mr. and Mrs. Pitman a visit. I introduced myself and what I did for the hospital, and asked how things were going for them. Just as the nurses had reported, the patient was quiet and seemingly satisfied. I’m not sure she said a word, just smiled and nodded her head at me. Her husband looked as grumpy as they had reported and seemed a bit cautious. I visited for a while, giving him information about the hospital. He didn’t have much to say other than to ask me my name and then write it in his little book. I gave him my business card and asked that he call me if either of them needed anything at all. Not a thing in the visit gave me a single clue.
The next day I met Mr. Pitman coming through the lobby of the hospital. He was coming from the direction of my office so I asked if he had maybe been around to see me, and if there was there anything I could help him with. He told me he had actually been to the barber shop to get a haircut, so I complimented him on it, and then asked about his wife. He told me she was feeling much better. Then he hesitated for a moment, looked at me and said this: “I am a farmer and not used to big hospitals like this. My wife called me a few days ago to come in and stay with her. I have a lot to do right now and hadn’t planned to come until the weekend, but she was pretty persistent, so I came on in. I don’t know why she wanted me here as everything is fine. In fact, if I had any money, I would give it to those nurses who take care of my wife. They are absolutely wonderful. I’ve been writing their names down just so we can remember them.”
I thanked Mr. Pitman for his kind comments and told him I would be sure and let the nurses know how he felt about them. I felt pretty sure he wasn’t going to be able to do that. This was a phone call I loved making. “By the way,” I said to the nurse who answered the phone. “Mr. Pitman just got a haircut in our barbershop; you might mention how nice it looks and see if that will open up some conversation.”
Mr. Pitman’s face (like mine) appeared rather stern without a smile. Add it up: Mr. Pitman’s harsh appearance plus no verbal communication plus continuous note-taking equals a nursing staff convinced he was very unhappy about his wife’s care and preparing to pounce. But that wasn’t the case; he was a very gracious man in a strange environment, at an inconvenient time, thrust into the middle of people he didn’t know. He was not a difficult person – just caught in a difficult situation.
We are by nature, programmed to fear what we don’t understand. This was the case on both sides: patient’s husband and nursing staff. In the case of Mr. Pitman, we did get to know the truth – got to understand. That made it better for everyone. When that doesn’t happen, it helps to remember these words from noted psychiatrist, Dr. Gerald Jampolsky:
We do not see people as a whole. We see just a fragment of a person, and our mind often interprets what we see as a fault. Evaluating and being evaluated by others, a habit from the past, result at worst in fear and at best in conditional love.*
*From Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald G. Jampolsky, M.D.
Ernestine S Bonicelli said:
That is so true! How many times do we misjudge people because of outward appearances! The least we must do is withhold judgment until and unless we find out the facts. If we have no way of finding the facts, we need to give others the benefit of the doubt. I believe that’s what the Golden Rule says!
Pat Rowland said:
Thanks, Ernestine. We were students everyday in the hospital, weren’t we? I hope we were good ones.
Jean Ann Williams said:
I love how you are able to interact with people. You have a gift, Pat, that I can only hope I can aspire to.
I was eagerly awaiting another post!
God bless you.
Pat Rowland said:
You are such an encourager to me, Jean. I think it may be time that I compile my healthcare stories into a book. Can’t put that off much longer if I’m going to do it. Thank you for nudging me along, my friend.
Katrina Smith said:
Wow! Me too…I learned about so much when I was 19 working in a nursing home. It was life changing. Great blog!
Pat Rowland said:
Thank you very much, Katrina. There is no place like a healthcare facility to teach us about people — and about ourselves.