This past August, I said good-bye to a man with whom I’d worked since December of 2013. Although I’d spent a great deal of time getting to know him by asking questions and listening to his stories, it was not until I read Robert Hirschkron’s obituary that I understood how much I didn’t know. I was truly moved by the life he led and the challenges he and his parents surmounted in order to enjoy that good life.
I first met Mr. H. after receiving a call from his daughter, Amy. She had flown in from California after learning about her dad’s stroke and hospitalization. He was experiencing some major complications from the event and she wanted guidance in managing his immediate care as well as regarding how to plan for the many transitions she knew were ahead.
Mr. H. lived locally with a significant other who was not capable of caring for him at home. His son and daughter both lived across the country in California.
He was experiencing delusions and hallucinations, things that Amy was able to quickly identify as coming from his childhood experiences of escaping his country of origin. Her ability to articulate his life experiences – to the physicians, nurses, therapists and me – was pivotal in shaping our approach, as well as in helping us get to know the essence of who he was.
Amy described his life as an engineer; his passion for exercise, including hiking, biking and skiing; and his commitment to his volunteer work teaching math to immigrants at a local non-profit organization.
We incorporated all of this into a long rehabilitation process that included as much physical exercise as he could tolerate, as well as work on cognitive abilities with occupational therapists. After his return to his new home, we introduced cognitive therapist, Lynn Serper of Brain Enhancement Services Inc., to continue his pursuit of lifelong learning.
Over many months, Mr. H. experienced five transitions as he moved from home to: an acute care hospital; an acute rehabilitation hospital; a skilled nursing facility; a traditional assisted living facility; and, eventually, the Memory Unit of a second assisted living facility. With the help of a truly committed staff and assistance from a local hospice organization, we were able to keep him in his home until his passing this August.
Through every transition, we met incredible healthcare professionals who made the time to get to know Mr. H. and use the knowledge of who he was to help him make incredible physical and cognitive progress in the beginning, and ease his suffering at the end.
Getting to know clients on a personal level
As health care professionals, we often meet people when they are least able to tell their story. And while our immediate goals are (understandably) to stabilize their health, a little curiosity about who they are as people can go a long way.
Asking clients about their work, their family, what matters most to them, etc., doesn’t take much time and enhances the process and experience of recovery.
The responsibility of care partners/family members
As a care partner/family member, it’s best to be prepared with an “elevator speech” – a brief description of your loved one and the things that are most important to him or her. This can be extremely useful when you find yourself in the position of attending physician appointments, responding to an emergency room crisis or accompanying your loved one in the hospital.
This information humanizes the person lying on a gurney or in a bed and sets the expectation for all involved that they get to know this individual on a more personal level.
Amy’s very brief description of her father, for example, which included his challenges early in life and all that he accomplished since, didn’t take very long at all. It framed the person she loved and to whom we were delivering care in a way that was carried through for the next three years as part of every transition.
The responsibility of the patient
As a patient, it’s up to us as well to connect with the healthcare professionals in our lives. Mr. H. did this with such grace, something I witnessed over three years as I attended all of his doctors’ appointments.
I was astonished, right up until the end, with his ability to quickly connect with new specialists as well as those he had known for years. I watched as each of these professionals responded with patience and empathy, treating Mr. H. with the dignity we all deserve in healthcare settings.
Beginning with my very first client relationship in 2005, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know hundreds of clients and their family members. These relationships are often on a level of intimacy that is both incredibly gratifying and sometimes quite sad, as we must say good-bye to each other.
I consider it a privilege and hope that you, too, have similar experiences in whatever role(s) you find yourself, whether as health care professional, consumer, care partner or patient. I’m going to miss Mr. H.; I thank him for enhancing my life experience.