Angela's Birthday Gift
Recently a relative of mine – I’ll call her Angela - celebrated her 94th birthday. Angela is a former nurse and a bright, intelligent lady with a wicked sense of humour. She has the extraordinary fortitude of her generation which has enabled her to deal courageously with failing health, constant pain and innumerable medical procedures.
In the past she has had reason to dread her regular visits to hospital where she said she felt at best patronised and at worst ignored. So she wasn’t looking forward to her birthday because it fell on a hospital appointment day.
I knew she would be tired that night so called her the following day to wish her happy returns. Her voice was bright, she sounded cheerful and altogether ten years younger. So what had happened on that day to make her feel so much better?
It started with the ambulance team who came to pick her up in the morning. Realising it was her birthday they greeted her by singing “Happy Birthday” as she opened the door.
In the ambulance was a lady who was a carer for another elderly patient. When they all arrived at the hospital this lady disappeared for a while and came back to the waiting room carrying a little birthday cake she had bought for Angela in the hospital shop.
Seeing this, one of the hospital staff decided that to enjoy her cake properly she needed a little table and a proper cup of tea so made it her business to sort these out.
When it came to the actual appointment, Angela was delighted to meet a new consultant who, she said, seemed genuinely interested in how she was and listened to what she had to say – and who also remembered to wish her a happy birthday.
Angela was still in pain and she knows it is not likely to improve, but her day had been transformed by simple acts of kindness and thoughtfulness – she felt valued and listened to as a human being, not just as a patient. And she felt better as a result.
We are a society obsessed with measurements. Over the past year or two Angela has regularly been asked to rate her “patient experience“ and, rightly or wrongly, she has failed to answer honestly for fear of being victimised. On one occasion, for instance, medical staff insisted she take painkillers which she knew she could not tolerate, resulting in her being violently sick in the ambulance on the way home. She didn’t complain.
But on her birthday what made a difference was not her patient experience so much as her human experience. Yes, she is 94. Yes, she has difficulty walking, washing and generally caring for herself. But for the people she met that day, both within the health service and without, Angela was not just a patient. She was a human being, someone with stories to tell and a life to be celebrated.
Thoughtfulness, respect and a little human kindness - this, surely, is putting the “care” into healthcare. And these were Angela’s real birthday gifts.