I had surgery last week. Thanks to modern medicine, what took four hours felt more like a five minute nap. My memories of the experience are sketchy. As time passes, bits and pieces of what happened that day slip in and out (but mostly out) of my recollection. I remember that there’s much I don’t remember.
What I do remember, is that at some point during those four hours while I was “out of it,” I could hear a voice speaking to me. He called me by name and told me that all was well.
I’m not the only one who has experienced such a thing.
Marcus Engel, who co-authored the short story “Open” with me, is a speaker who travels around the country, talking to audiences about his hospitalization after being hit – and nearly killed – by a drunk driver. Blinded, severely injured, breathing with the help of a ventilator, and fighting for his life, there’s much that Marcus doesn’t remember about what happened in the hours and days following the accident. What he does remember, however, is the voice of a volunteer named Jennifer. She held his hand during those first critical hours after he was brought into the hospital, and would tell him repeatedly:
Recently, a nurse named Kim* told me the story of a stranger who greeted her in public one day with an enthusiastic embrace. “Kim,” said the woman, “I know you don’t remember me, but you saved my life. You were my nurse a while back. You spoke to me every day. I would recognize your voice anywhere!” And Kim then remembered her – a different version of her, one she’d only seen lying in a hospital bed, unconscious and unresponsive.
It was the first time Kim had been able to look into the eyes of a woman who had coded on her watch, and she’d resuscitated back to life. It was clear that throughout her time in Kim’s care, the patient had heard those words more than once:
What a difference they had made.
The human memory is self-protective. We are hardwired to forget much of the pain, fear, and confusion that we face in a situation like a dire medical event or a hospitalization. Being unconscious for a little while certainly helps. Whether it’s in a coma, or a state of shock after a car accident, or even during a surgery; whether it happens naturally, or is medically induced, we should be thankful for those moments we’re allowed to slip out of consciousness and tune out the world around us. We’re graciously given permission to forget some of the things that are better left unremembered.
And yet, we possess the amazing ability to weed out – and retain – parts of those experiences which are wondrous and hopeful.
Like those voices that find their way to us the in darkness. The ones which promise us that we are cared for; we are in good hands. We are not alone.
Thank you to the Kims and the Jennifers of the world, who grasp the hands of their patients every day and speak those precious words of reassurance to those who cannot speak back.
And to Dr. K., thank you for those kind words you said to me last week.
And the way you spoke those words – just as if I’d been awake, alert, and fully capable of understanding and remembering them.
Because I did. Because I still do.
You’re doing great, Amy. Just great.
Chime in below and leave a post about a time when you were a voice in the darkness for a patient or a loved one. We’ll pick our favorite response and send an autographed copy of ‘Through Other Eyes’ your way. Make sure you enter your email address (won’t be publicly visible) so we can contact you if your post is the one we choose!
**A short suggested reading list:
Alsad J . & Ahmad M (2005) Communication with critically ill patients.
Journal of Advanced Nursing. 50(4), 356–362
***Engel, Marcus (2010) “I’m Here: Compassionate Communication in Patient Care.” 3rd edition. Ella Press.
Geraghty M (2005) Nursing the unconscious patient. Nursing Standard. 20, 1 54 – 64.
*Name changed to protect privacy
**Thanks, Michael Wold, for the lit search!
***Check out Marcus Engel’s website when you get the chance – www.marcusengel.com.