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Hospitals know a lot of heartaches. An illness brings someone in, but that person comes with all their problems and they should never be under-estimated in their journey of healing. During my years as a patient advocate, I came to know a lot of wonderful people and a lot of their heartaches.

The very first patient I ever dealt with was a teenager battling a rare disease. It wasn’t thought he would recover, but he did. After being home a while and getting back on his feet, he fell in with a wrong group and was killed as a result of association. When his dad came to tell me, I found it hard to take in. This young man who had won the battle of disease, only to have his life end in senseless tragedy – how could it be? How did his parents manage their grief so soon after being on a mountaintop of joy?

There was an elderly woman who was with us one December and it was uncertain as to whether she would be staying through Christmas Day. Most patients wanted badly to be out and home for Christmas, but this dear lady preferred staying. She said she would rather be in a hospital with people around her than go home and be alone.

I think about another elderly and gentle woman. She confided in a nurse that she knew her children were taking things from her house while she was hospitalized. They were using her absence and access to her house keys to take what they wanted. How can children do that? Social Service was called, but intervention didn’t take away the sadness of such abuse nor the pain that mother’s heart knew.

There was a delightful man who did his best to make every day positive in some way, all the while knowing he was dying and would probably not leave the hospital. He called for his grandchildren to come so that he could talk to them about how needless his early death was, that he was dying because he had abused his body, and wanted to impress upon them their opportunity to live life better. He gave his speech and then went back to bringing laughter into the room. What a brave individual!

I recall the many families who were torn apart by end-of-life decisions. Spouses and children couldn’t agree on when it was time to let their loved one go, even when the patient had made personal wishes clear to the family. Sometimes it was a spouse who held on, other times it was the children. Before the day of the Patient Self-Determination Act that gave us the Living Will and Durable Power of Attorney, it could be an especially tough issue to resolve. Just when families needed to pull together, impending death often brought family discord and added anguish.

There was a very loving wife who delayed bringing in her husband’s Living Will because she wasn’t ready to give him up. They had been married more than 50 years and she thought she would rather take him home and care for him like an infant rather than lose him forever. After taking some time to work it through – weighing what she knew he wanted against her heartache in giving him up – she did eventually bring in his Living Will. Decisions in the midst of grief are always the hardest to make.

I think about the nurses who cried when babies would not live outside their mothers’ wombs and how they consoled those empty-armed mothers. And I remember the doctors who gave the extra measure of hope to their patients while battling extremely tough medical cases. There were pharmacists who spent time explaining a medicine or apologizing for delays and confusion when the fault wasn’t theirs, kitchen staff that made special surprises for those who needed an emotional boost, chaplains who counseled with family members in despair and prayed with patients over their fear and confusion.

One caregiver that really touched my heart was a physical therapist who was an expert at building bridges with patients with her sense of humor. I remember a family support meeting in our rehab area where we all sat around a table with the patient and caregivers explained to his family the patient’s progress. The stroke victim was expressionless until it came the physical therapist’s turn to speak. Ellen jumped right in, applying her good-humored teasing directly to the patient, and speaking much more frankly than any of the others. She told this patient he wasn’t doing all she knew he could do and she didn’t soft pedal it. Was he offended? Oh, no. His face just lit up with joy. For the first time in the meeting, he participated to the degree he was able. His therapist had made a heart contact when she worked with him; he knew she saw him as a unique individual and not just another patient recovering from a stroke. It was a beautiful moment.

A hospital is a microcosm of society. My point in reflecting on what I learned there is this: what I saw in a smaller setting is what we have all around us. Wherever we work or live, there are hurting people. Life is filled with opportunities to help someone along the way. By realizing that we walk amidst suffering, we can be more kindly observant and less judgmental, more giving and less self-centered. We can choose to not have as one of our biggest regrets someday, the things we had a chance to do for someone else and didn’t.

There is not one single person anywhere who doesn’t appreciate a little extra kindness, some measure of caring. Often the tiniest efforts mean the most. The degree of appreciation usually lies in the size of the hole in the heart – and that, only the hurting one knows.

Pat Rowland is retired from Methodist Healthcare in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was Corporate Director of Patient Affairs.

Commercial Appeal, December 2012