On the whole I’ve been immensely fortunate not to have many health issues, but at my last physical I did have one tiny concern… a small, hard knot under the skin on the inside of my right knee which was occasionally sore to the touch. I have noticed it off and on for a few months, but I wasn’t too concerned about it. My doctor assured me that it was likely a little fatty deposit (not the first of those, I’m sure, in this body!) but, just to be on the safe side, she recommended I have an ultrasound test to tell for sure. Fair enough. I left without any concern about it at all.
It took six weeks to get an appointment, but finally last Monday was the day. After waiting 45 minutes, the door to the clinical area swung open and my name was called by a pretty woman dressed neatly in a white lab coat, scrub pants, and black clogs. Her name was Anna according to her slightly crooked name tag, and she looked to be in her early 30’s. She smiled briefly and, seeing that I was inches from the door, let it go for me to catch and turned down the hall, rightly assuming I would follow her. I heard her ask, “How are you?” but before I could actually answer she was picking up a chart on her way past the counter and motioning me into a room. As we entered, she dimmed the lights so that only the bright computer screen which sat beside the treatment table lit up the small, windowless room. She instructed me briskly, but not unkindly, “Please lay down face up on the table and show me with one finger where you feel the mass.”
The mass? I felt my pulse quicken a bit. I hadn’t thought of it in quite such ominous terms. A fatty deposit seemed a lot friendlier than a mass. As she took her chair beside the examining table, I dutifully pointed. As she felt for it with her right hand, her face immediately turned toward the computer screen while her left hand began clicking wildly on the keyboard in a fashion of one-handed typing that was nothing short of amazing and spoke volumes for her level of expertise with this particular technology.
Without a warning, she picked up a bottle from beside the computer, and I felt a generous squirt of the cold jelly-like ointment (which I remembered from my pregnancy days) hit the inside of my leg, quickly followed by the hard metal of the ultrasound wand which she maneuvered and glided expertly all around the area.
Since I was lying flat on my back, my two choices were to stare at the ceiling which I could barely see in the darkened room or at her face that was brightly lit by the computer screen, discreetly placed so that I could only see the backside. I watched her as she typed with one hand and guided the wand on my leg with the other. And then I saw her frown slightly and lean in to look closer at the screen. As she paused the wand in a particular spot, I watched her eyes studying the screen intensely and then, without looking at me, she asked, “Have you had any surgery on this leg before?” “No.” She looked puzzled. “Any injuries of any kind?” “No.” She twisted her mouth slightly and pushed the wand down harder on the knot. “Does it hurt you?” “Only when you push the damned thing down like that several times in a row.” Okay, that’s not actually what I said but it was definitely what I was thinking. My real response was, “No, not much. It’s a little sore from time to time but nothing bad.” Anna looked closer at the screen again. Frowning slightly, she traced a line down the front of my shin very slowly with the wand, over and over several times. The line she followed was surprisingly uncomfortable. What the heck? What had she found?
By now my heart was pounding as my mind was wildly imagining all kinds of terrible images on the screen that I could not actually see but whose reflection I could imagined written all over her face. And then, without notice, she holstered the wand, clicked off the monitor, flipped on the bright overhead lights, and announced that we were all done and my doctor would get the results in 4-5 business days.
I knew better than to ask what Anna thought she had seen on that monitor. I knew she would tell me that my doctor would get back to me with the results, but I sat on the edge of the table, feeling a little light-headed and oddly like a child wishing for some kind of reassurance from a parent that this had been absolutely nothing but a silly little routine exam. As she picked up my chart and opened the door, I squeaked out a thank you, and gathered my belongings. As I turned to exit the room, she threw me a quick smile and bid me farewell with a slightly weary sounding “Have a great day.”
As I walked out of the building into the bright, southern California sunshine, I took in a couple of deep breaths and decided to get myself a coffee and regroup. I found a Starbucks one exit up, and as I sipped my Cinnamon Dolce Latte on the patio, I started to feel myself coming back from the scary places we can get to in our minds when we let fear, worry, and other useless emotions take over. I was never so thankful for the tools which I have firmly established in my personal arsenal as I was that morning. Tools that center and ground me in the Now and create the absolute knowing that all is well and all will be well … no matter what.
I remember thinking… I refuse to waste this gorgeous day, this relaxed morning to myself, or one single moment of this amazing life on things I cannot change or the speculation of a future we can never predict. As the minutes rolled on and my breathing returned to normal, my thoughts returned to the blessings, the wisdom, and the beauty in my life. I left feeling a renewed sense of peace and certainty.
And I had this Music Monday’s Stretch already written in my mind.
My message today is actually not about me or my ultrasound test but rather the role of Anna in my experience of that appointment. The interesting thing was that Anna was not rude to me at all. Quite the opposite… she was polite as polite could be. But being polite is not the same as being connected. Anna rarely actually looked at me in the eyes and even when she did, there was no sense that she actually saw me. She smiled at me, but she never actually conveyed anything to me with that smile.
It would not have been hard for anyone to guess what my mind was conjuring during this procedure if that person had been truly present with me in that room. I didn’t want sympathy but true empathy would have been such a welcome salve to my troubled heart. I could imagine what a difference it would have made for me if she would truly have connected with me when she met me, If she would have sat with me for only a moment in that room with a gentle hand on my arm and explained how this would go, If she would have remarked during the examination that I was doing very well and she was able to get incredibly clear images for my physician, If she would have sat me up with her help, teased me to shield my eyes to the bright lights coming on, smiled at me reassuringly and told me that she’d do her best to get the results to my physician quickly… and congratulated me on being so proactive with my health and admonished me to go out now and enjoy this beautiful day.
How would that have changed my experience? How many times have I seen similar disconnects in dental and veterinary offices or at corporate meetings or even found myself assuming that it was routine for a new speaker to find the courage to get up in front of a group at one of my workshops and try on their voice for the very first time? Empathy means we acknowledge another person’s perspective. We see them and attempt to convey that we understand them.
And so, on this October Music Monday (always the first Monday of each month), I’ve decided not on an actual song but rather a video from the Cleveland Clinic which might be the best demonstration and reminder I’ve ever seen that we all have our own stories and journeys, fears and dreams. This week, please… really “see” your patients, clients, children, parents, and friends and communicate the depth of your connection, empathy, and presence in the moment with them using your eyes, your smile, and your gentle touch. See them with your whole heart. It is one of the most unselfish things you can do to stop thinking about your own story and help someone else hold theirs for just a moment.
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