Writing my last post brought up another really strong memory.
One of my memories of that 48-hour period after I had my esophageal manometry test is going home with the tube in my nose and the pager thing attached to my shirt. I was still a little groggy from the anesthetic, and of course I was being wheeled out in a chair, so I was kind of sagging against the side. No one in the hallways or the elevator would look at me – at least not to make eye contact and smile the way you normally do when you pass by others. Instead, they took little furtive glances at the tube, the pager, my posture, my mom – and then quickly looked away.
It was the worst feeling in the world. Not one passerby in the hospital that day saw me as a person – they saw me as a condition. They saw me as something to be afraid of, because someday they might be in my shoes. And all I had was a tube in my nose – there were a lot of people who looked much sicker than I did.
But I know they felt this way because I’m guilty of the same thing, and I could see it in their eyes and their body language.
Ever since that day, I’ve gone out of my way to look everyone in the eye, especially when I’m in the hospital for an appointment or another test. It doesn’t matter how sick someone looks, or how much my stomach drops or my spine feels wiggly. I meet their eyes. If it’s appropriate, I smile; otherwise, I just nod my head in greeting. No inappropriate staring or looking at their injuries. Just a quick smile with a side of eye contact.
Regardless of how a sick person is feeling – even if it’s a good day or they’re used to being in a wheelchair – they need a smile or a nod just as much (probably more than, in fact) the average person you see in Starbucks. It’s so important to feel seen and to feel human, and it’s something many of us take for granted. But if I could impart any one lesson I’ve learned through all my medical experiences, it would be this: Please don’t be afraid to give that gift. It really is true that a smile can make all the difference.