A Hand on Her Shoulder
The woman brought her husband to the emergency department; he wasn’t feeling well. Shortly after he arrived, his heart arrested, and she was rushed out of the room. We went to update her. The doctor did all the talking; I just stood by her, put my hand on her right shoulder and squeezed gently. Her husband regained a normal heart rhythm, but needed the help of a ventilator to breathe; we had to rush him to the cath lab to clear the blocked vessel in his heart. We went to update her. I didn’t say a word. The doctor did all the talking; I just stood by her, put my hand on her right shoulder and squeezed gently. The cath lab found complete blockage of one of the blood vessels in his heart — his heart attack was a massive one. He was not arousable, and was rushed to the ICU. For the next few days on rounds, when we arrived at her husband’s room and gathered around our patient, I took my position on her right side with my hand on her shoulder, didn’t have a word to say, and squeezed gently. Her husband’s heart, kidneys and liver were failing, and his brain was injured, maybe permanently. We held a family meeting in hopes of better understanding his wishes, and I didn’t really know where to stand. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and smiled, ushering me to my position on her right side and reached to put my hand on her shoulder.
Months later, I was in the hospital lobby when I noticed a woman in a wheelchair smiling ecstatically at me. At first, I did not recognize her, but then I remembered my place — at her side with my hand on her shoulder. She turned her neck and looked up at her daughter, who was pushing the wheelchair, and said, “That’s him.” Her daughter laughed and said, “She can’t stop talking about you — the best doctor in the hospital.” I wonder if she noticed that this “doctor” didn’t write a single order, didn’t perform a single procedure and barely said a word.
I was humbled to know how simple kindness can be — a hand on her shoulder.
Previously published in Insight: Indiana University Medical Student Research Journal
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- ‘I Think I can Trust You’: Unpacking a Patient’s Words
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