Bev Smith was an administrative intern at Riverside Methodist Hospital during the time I was President and CEO there. As part of our story-telling culture, she shared a heart-searing account of the power our presence can have on the faintest of voices - a voice so soft it seemed to come from the quietest corner of a darkened room:
"On one particular evening, I walked by a patient's room in the Critical Care Unit and noticed a woman lying very still as tubes flowed into her and a monitor beeped a faint but steady reminder to "hold on." Although she didn't seem to hear, I chatted with her for a moment then quietly left the room with a wave.
"For fifteen straight nights I stopped by Ms. Lewis's room to say hello. She never moved or opened her eyes in response.
"On the sixteenth evening, I was in a bit of a hurry, so I waved a quick "Hello, Ms. Lewis" as I sped past the door, only to hear a faint "Hello" drift from the room. I rapidly retraced my steps and found myself looking into a smiling pair of blue eyes. Ms. Lewis reached for my hand and said in a whisper, "I waited for you every evening to stop in my room and talk to me. It made the nights bearable. Thank you, young lady."
How many times have we unintentionally ignored patients in the mistaken belief that our presence doesn't matter? When we do speak, how often have we spoken to the elderly as if they were tiny children? How often have we assumed our reassurance means nothing to an apparently unconscious patient.
The value of speaking to these fellow beings is not only for their potential benefit. So long as we are present to the weakest among us, we honor their humanity and this affects our overall treatment of the person.
The Recovery Room nurse who chats with her unconscious patients is far more likely to treat them well than if she views them as inanimate objects. Sadly, I have actually heard both doctors and O.R. nurses say (within the subconscious hearing of anesthetized patients) things like, "Okay, send in another side of beef." Or, "Bring in the next victim."
This effort to remind us of the best way to treat the apparrently comatose is not meant to chastize those who forget. It is to signal that Radical Loving Care calls us to honor all patients, not just the ones who can communicate in ways to which we are accustomed.
Is it not the patients with the faintest voices (or no voice at all) who most need our Loving presence?
-Reverend Erie Chapman