I made two instantaneous, temporary friends yesterday, and it meant everything to me.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, a total of 20 healthcare professionals assisted me on Tuesday during my cardiac scare, and every single one of them was professional, kind, and skilled at their job.

I appreciated the efforts of everyone involved beyond measure. 

That said, some were better than others, and truly, all it took was a little bit of authenticity and connection to make me feeler safer, better, and less afraid.  

Two in particular:

My first nurse in the cardiac unit, whose name I cannot recall but who remembered my name and used it constantly. Rather than reverting to "Sir" or "Mr. Dicks,"  I was "Matt" every time she entered the room, which instantly made me feel known and safe. Elysha had yet to arrive at the hospital, so I was alone and more frightened than I was willing to admit. Having someone call me by my name without hesitation made me feel less alone.

It also gave me the courage to ask her how I was doing, which I had been afraid to ask until that moment. As she turned to exit the room at one point, I said, "Am I in trouble here? Am I going to be okay?" 

Rather than pausing by the doorway to answer my question, she stopped everything, turned, stepped close to my bed, and spoke softly. She said, "We don't know it it's your heart yet, but we have different pods here, and you're not in the red pod. That means you're not one of our most critical patients. I can't promise that there's nothing wrong with your heart, but the doctors can't be too worried about you if you're here. Okay? And I'll be here all morning, watching you like a hawk."

That moment meant the world to me. Rather than speaking to a medical professional, I felt like I was speaking to a human being who saw me and understood that I needed an honest, authentic connection with another human being.

For the first time all morning, I relaxed a little.  

It's also so easy to think that you've been forgotten when you're lying in a hospital bed in the cardiac unit, listening to the intercom constantly call for doctors and nurses to seemingly every corner of the hospital. There are hundreds of patients in need of care, and you start to feel like one of many rather than someone of import.

Time also crawls by in a hospital, so if your chest hurts like hell and you still think you might be having a heart attack, the absence of a doctor or nurse for even 15 minutes can be scary. "I'll be watching you like a hawk" were words that I clung to as I lay there alone and afraid.

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A nurse named Emily, who assisted with my stress test, treated me with equal kindness and authenticity. She had to remove about a dozen sticky EKG pads from my chest before shaving my chest and reapplying new pads. It was not pleasant. Others had already removed and replaced several of these pads in the cardiac unit, but Emily turned the ripping and tearing into a team effort. It wasn't something that she had to do. It was something we did together. She strategized with me. Apologized before each rip. Winced with each tear. Empathized with my pain. Celebrated when we were finished.

She was my teammate. My partner. We were in this together. 

As she shaved my chest, she never stopped smiling. She asked me questions about my wife and kids. My job. She cracked jokes about what Elysha would think of my patchwork of chest hair. When I asked what would happen during my stress test, the took my hand and told me that it was no big deal. A simple walk on a treadmill while doctors and nurses watched my heart. "A room full of people just for you."

Once again, I didn't feel alone. Didn't feel like one of hundreds of patients. I felt important.  

After she prepped me for the stress test, it was time for Emily to go to lunch, and I was honestly sad to see her go. The doctors and nurses who were present during my stress test were excellent, but Emily felt like a friend. I only spent about 15 minutes with her, but it was the easiest, most relaxed 15 minutes of my entire time at the hospital, despite the pain of ripping pads from my body and what could've been an awkward moment shaving my chest.

She was real. Authentic. Funny. Honest. I felt like she was a friend who also happened to be my nurse. She made me feel safe and known. She made the hospital feel smaller and less intimidating. She is someone I will never forget.

And she accomplished all of this in just 15 minutes. 

I've been working with patients, family members, and caregivers at Yale-New Haven Hospital this year, teaching them to tell their stories to doctors and nurses so patient care can be improved. I've been delivering keynotes at conferences for caregivers and other professionals in the healthcare industry, talking about the value of storytelling, connection, authenticity, and vulnerability when interacting with patients and their families. I've consulted with organizations who administer healthcare programs throughout the state of Connecticut. Next week I'll be delivering another keynote at a conference in Boston.  

I've talked about this topic with thousands of healthcare professionals, but yesterday I was able to witness it firsthand. I experienced the difference between a competent professional who does their job in a kind, respectful manner and a competent professional who is also authentic, real, and honest. I witnessed the power of a healthcare professional to put a frightened patient at ease with a few well chosen words and something as simple as physical proximity, the holding of a hand, the softening of a voice, and a smile.

We are at our most vulnerable when we are lying in a hospital bed, wondering if our life is about to change forever. Wondering if we'll ever see our children again. Wondering if the book we haven't finished writing will remain unfinished. Wondering if our dreams for tomorrow will ever be realized. Wondering if the professionals taking care of us are simply doing their jobs or really care about us. See us. Wondering if they want to know us as something more than numbers and beeps and a series of incomplete tasks.

Every single person who took care of me on Tuesday was excellent, but two women not only kept me safe but made me feel safe. They made me feel known. Important. They treated me in the same way I would treat a friend. For a brief moment, I felt like they were my friends. Instantaneous intimacy established through a moment of honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability. 

Two women who turned a day of fear and anxiety into something a little less frightening. They made a terrible day a little less terrible.

I'll never forget them.

Not a heart attack after all, but an eventful day nonetheless.

I woke up yesterday morning with terrible chest pains and struggling to breathe. I fed the cats, sat down at my computer to write, and tried to pretend that I wasn't in pain. 

About 15 minutes later, at 5:45 AM, I decided that I might be in trouble. I was starting to sweat and the pain was getting worse. I couldn't catch my breath. Just as I was debating what to do, I received a text message from Elysha asking me to come upstairs. It was 5:49 AM.

It was the first time in my life that Elysha texted me before 6:00 AM. Maybe before 7:00 AM. 

How did she know I was in trouble? Has she installed cameras that I don't know about? Are we so psychically connected that she can feel my pain?

No. She had heard a strange sound for the second day in a row and wanted to know what it was. We pushed that question aside for another day and finally called for help and I took my sixth ride to the hospital in the back of an ambulance.

I spent most of the day at Hartford Hospital, undergoing every possible heart test you can imagine. X-ray, EKG, an ultrasound of my heart, and a stress test to name a few. In the end, the doctors determined that my heart was not the problem. In fact, it turns out that my heart is in outstanding shape.

Instead, I had either pulled or slightly torn a chest muscle while hiking The Freedom Trail with students the previous day. I was carrying a backpack loaded with water, food, medications, and the like, and the weight of the backpack and the length of the walk had apparently done the damage. The damaged muscles tightened overnight, and when I awoke and started moving, the pain began.

The doctor explained that pulled or torn chest muscles and acid reflux are commonly mistaken for heart attacks, even by medical personnel, so although they, too, suspected a heart attack for a while, it wasn't surprising when they realized the true cause of my pain. 

Frightening possibility averted. My chest still hurts like hell this morning, and it's still a struggle to breathe, but muscle pain is nothing compared with the alternatives.  

As I went through an emotional, painful, and interesting day, I made several observations:

  1. A total of 22 medical professionals helped me over the course of the day, including a dispatcher, an EMT over the phone, 3 EMT's onboard the ambulance, 2 police officers, 4 nurses, a physician's assistant, a phlebotomist, 4 doctors, an X-ray technician, 2 medical transport personnel, and 2 unidentified hospital personnel. It makes you realize how impressive and extensive our healthcare system is. There are a lot of people just standing by at the hospital, waiting to help us in a moment's notice.  
  2. There is no authenticity in the back of an ambulance. EMT's speak like they are high on valium. Overly calm and syrupy sweet. They communicate with one another other in non-specific pronouns and silent signals. One of them said, "okey dokey" three times. They are persistently positive, even when they have failed twice to get an IV into a patient who is terrified of needles and is now bleeding down his forearm.
  3. I always find it strange how a person can spend 30 minutes making sure you aren't dying or 15 minutes carefully shaving your chest and assuring you that everything will be fine and then step out of your life forever like they were never there. Brief moments of intense intimacy followed by an instantaneous and permanent departures.  
  4. Two of my doctors were Speak Up fans and recognized Elysha and me. One of them said, "Don't worry. I like your stories too much to let anything happen to you." 
  5. Whether or not chest pain awakens a patient from sleep or begins after the patient has awakened naturally is apparently a very big deal. It was my most frequently asked question yesterday, followed by "Is your heart rate always so low?"
  6. I apparently have the heart rate of a world class athlete. 48 BPM when I was discharged,  but it went as low as 28 BPM at one point. When I asked if this was a good thing, my favorite nurse of the day said, "You're not exactly a world class athlete, so maybe not."
  7. I have been meditating every morning for more than five years. That allows me to calm my body and mind when things around me are hectic, terrifying, and even painful. Credit Plato Karafelis for encouraging this years ago. It's made an enormous difference in my life, especially on days like yesterday. 
  8. If the gym had doctors and nurses standing beside the treadmills offering encouragement like they did during my stress test, the world would be a lot healthier and a lot thinner. 
  9. The constant beeping of the cardiac unit surely drives those doctors and nurses to drink.
  10. I purposely changed into a loose fitting tee shirt and shorts while waiting for the ambulance to alive. I also grabbed a phone charger and my headphones. Even in the midst of what I thought might be a heart attack, I'm still a Boy Scout.  

I'll have some more meaningful and in depth comments about the day as the week goes on. As one of the doctors who knew me said, "I bet today is giving you some great new material."