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.