Angels on earth. There are movies and stories about them. Selfless souls who bring light and love wherever they go. If you are wondering where they live, I just spent four days watching the most amazing angels on earth care for the elderly and injured at a rehab facility in Aurora, Colorado, where a family member was recuperating from a recent health scare. Never have I seen a more universally loving group of people. They had all the time and patience in the world for their patients and their family members who, frankly, were not always so kind and patient themselves as they faced frightening life-altering health challenges.
A rehab facility, much like a hospital, is full of yuck, so it is easy to complain about it. (Another day, I probably will “complain” about the patient challenges in our current health-care system, which is not focused on patients’ needs but rather on system ease.) But now I want to talk about the truly miserable challenges these caring and loving souls face every day.
RNs are highly trained health-care professionals, but, like firemen—who spend most of their days waiting for a few moments of excitement— the nurses at this facility spend most of each day delivering medication, wiping asses and helping get patients in and out of bed or to and from therapy. Yet at every level—RNs and LPNs…physical, occupational and speech therapists…patient aids…cleaning and kitchen staff…nursing directors…and patient advocates—there was always a “yes.”
I can just imagine staff meetings at the start of each shift— “Remember team…the patients and families here are dealing with a horrible time in their lives. Besides making them healthy, our job is to ease their fears and help them feel safe and calm when their worlds are falling apart. We help them find hope in the face of frustrating challenges, and we do whatever we can to make them comfortable every step of the way. Every person in every department here helps people heal.”
And so they coaxed and cajoled unwilling patients into taking showers…going to therapy that seemed “silly”…and having just a few more bites of dinner. And, when the food served wasn’t so tasty, the “institutional kitchen” staff even happily made a special grilled cheese sandwich.
I spent many hours sitting and watching, so I had the opportunity to take in some inspirational and motivational lessons that can be applied beyond the halls of “hell”…
- Voices filled with warmth and can-do attitude: Each patient rang the bell as many as six times a day to get help going to the bathroom. And with each request, a cheerful and enthusiastic staff members was happy to “help get you up,” no matter how difficult it was to get the patient out of bed and transferred to a wheelchair…or how messy the bathroom business became. Keeping a smile in the voice lowered stress for both patients and the providers.
- Always treat others with dignity: Everyone on the floor of this facility had had a stroke or some other traumatic brain injury. Many patients were elderly and possibly hard of hearing, so it often was difficult to get their attention or get them to respond to an inquiry. It would be super-easy to just write them off as being “checked out” when questions and comments were met with blank stares or nonsensical responses. Yet, with every interaction, the staff looked the patient in the eyes and called him or her by name. They spoke to the person hidden inside the shell, no matter how deeply buried that person was.
- It is everyone’s job: Every person at every level was empowered to say yes and pitch in as needed. The occupational therapist dealt with a messy bathroom emergency instead of calling someone else to handle it. When the head of nursing was concerned that nighttime phone calls were going unanswered, she found the source of the problem and made sure it didn’t happen again. And, as mentioned above, cafeteria workers could make an exception and cook a custom meal. These seem like small things, but underneath was the really important concept that the team’s performance was more important than petty territoriality.
- Humor helps: I often joke that there is no need to be unhappy at work—you’re going to be there any way, so you might as well make it fun. And that held true at the rehab facility, where humor could be found in even the most frustrating or messy situations. We take ourselves and our lives so seriously. But being able to laugh in the face of frustration has a remarkable ability to lower stress for everyone involved and even may help a problem to dissipate.
- Endless patience: My father used to talk about situations in both business and child-rearing that require endless patience. It actually was a great irony that, after suffering a stroke, my father had his own long, hard struggle, requiring endless patience within himself to face his daily frustrations and even more endless patience from family members when his temper flared. Endless patience is difficult to achieve, but oh so worth it when mastered as a skill.
While I would never wish anyone to have my experience of the past few days, I am deeply grateful for the humbling reminders and lessons learned that I am taking to the world beyond rehab. Thank you angels.