It had been fourteen days since I’d contracted Rotavirus and I was only getting sicker. The increasing pain told me something was off.
Years of competitive sport had given me a high pain tolerance; this, however, was like nothing I’d experienced before. “I think I need to go to the doctor,” I told my then-husband. I must have looked a state.
I’d lost 24lbs in a fortnight and nothing was staying down, not even water. The pain came in contractions; I doubled over with another one.
“Actually, I think you need an ambulance,” he said. Without waiting for an answer, he dialed.
I was rushed into the emergency room in a blur of lights and uniforms. “We need to do some paperwork,” said a nurse, pulling the curtains around my bed. “But let’s get you comfortable first.” He held my arm and injected morphine. Laying my head on the stiff overly-starched pillow, I wrapped my arms back around my stomach, and tried to focus on anything but the pain.
After tidying the trolley, the nurse drew back the curtain to leave. “We’re going to admit you for now. We’ll take you upstairs to the ward soon. Okay?”
At the infectious diseases ward, I was relieved to see I wouldn’t have a roommate. I needed peace and quiet to cope with the pain. Several tests and hours later, a specialist visited. He entered the room in full protective gear, an army of student doctors in matching PPE a safe distance behind him.
The specialist stepped toward the bed and placed his latex-wrapped hand on my arm. “We don’t know what’s wrong at this stage, but we will find out,” he said. And then, without another word, he and his protegees were gone. I got the feeling patient interactions didn’t come easily for him. Good, I thought, the best doctors are a bit unusual. Still, I couldn’t help feeling like a biblical leper. The solitary room I was grateful for earlier now felt like a place I’d been banished to.
Three days later, I was still in isolation and still without answers. The morphine barely covered the debilitating pain.
“Can I have more morphine?” I asked my nurse, a different one than the previous two days. The infectious diseases ward was small and it seemed they only rostered one nurse per shift.
“You’re not due for more,” she replied.
“It’s really bad.” I grimaced. The effort of speaking sent another wave of daggers from my groin to my chest.
“You need to wait!” she said and abruptly left. Half an hour later I rang the buzzer. It was too much. I couldn’t wait.
“I’m busy right now!” the nurse called from the hallway. In too much pain to move or call out, I was helpless to respond. My feelings of being exiled multiplied and I broke down. By the time my husband arrived that afternoon I was mute.
“What’s going on?” he asked, fear in his eyes.
“It’s so bad,” I managed. Without realizing, I’d been hyperventilating from the pain. Suddenly, the muscles in my arms contracted. My hands became painful claws, bending involuntarily towards my forearms and I passed out.
I woke to a room full of doctors and nurses fussing over me. My husband had pushed the emergency alarm. They talked over me, giving commands and pushing buttons on the drip monitor.
“You should be more comfortable now,” one of the hospital staff reassured me. Before I could respond, I fell into an exhausted sleep.
That evening my husband and I spoke with the doctor. “I’m very sorry,” he said. “The nurse had assumed you were a drug addict. There was nothing to that end on your notes obviously…” he trailed off, clearly embarrassed. They’d finally diagnosed me with Crohn’s disease. My intestines were ulcerated and blocked with swelling set off by the Rotavirus. I’d be staying a few days longer.
“I don’t want that nurse anywhere near me,” I spat. Her assumptions were wrong, I've never even smoked a cigarette. But even if I was a drug addict, as a human being in pain, I deserved to be shown empathy.
“She won’t be assigned to you,” the doctor reassured me.
But the next day, there she was adjusting my drip. My chest tightened in panic. Was I in the hands of this woman a second time? She stood next to my bed and answered the question I was silently asking. “I specifically asked for you as my patient today,” she said. What? I thought. Was she punishing me for getting her in trouble?
Pulling a chair close to my bed, she sat beside me. She leaned forward and clasped her hands in front of her. “If you want another nurse, I understand. I want to make up for yesterday. I am so sorry.” Her eyes locked with mine and I could see she genuinely meant it. I paused, then nodded. “Thank you,” she said, squeezing my hand.
Being able to acknowledge her mistake, humble herself, and make a heart-felt apology showed a lot of courage. Seeing that, I was happy to forgive and move on. The rest of that shift she was attentive and kind. Perhaps she’d just had an off-day?
Even though I responded in anger at first, I’m relieved the nurse gave me a second chance to forgive and move on, because a few years later I was working in a hospital myself as a technician and made a mistake of my own. I had a full eight-hour day to face, a two hour drive, housework to head home to, and a preschooler who didn’t sleep through the night. I was exhausted and skipped an important step in a patient interview. My mistake was stupid, an oversight in a checklist, but also minor — it led to embarrassment for the patient but not physical harm. Still, it shouldn't have happened.
The patient’s husband wouldn’t accept an apology and was furious on his wife’s behalf. In New Zealand there’s not much we can do as hospital staff to make up for minor mistakes — all we have to offer is an apology. I asked him to make a formal complaint but I knew it meant nothing really. I felt bad for him and his wife. What else could I say than sorry?
The current state of the world has me thinking about nurses and hospitals. There's been a lot of praise for our wonderful hospital teams. But medical staff are under huge pressures: they’re stressed and overworked, and they are going to make some mistakes — hopefully minor ones.
All essential workers are superheroes, but they’re also human. We all make mistakes; it’s how we respond to each other right now that matters. Can we show someone grace when they make a mistake? As mature adults, of course we can. There’s maturity in being able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes; when someone is rude, offensive, or makes a mistake in their interaction with you, there’s maturity in being able to say: “they’re probably having a hard time.” You can hold a space, listen, and choose to respond kindly.
At minimum, if someone makes a mistake, you can accept their apology. You never know when it might be you doing the apologizing.