At the last ImproveCareNow learning session, a mentor gave me a piece of advice I’ve carried with me since: “As you go forward, no matter how much training you have or how brilliant you are, never assume you know best. Always listen.”
On Saturday mornings, I work as a child life volunteer at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where I follow a variation of the same rule. I play an important role, but before I knock on each and every door, I tell myself that I come last. I am there to listen and try to make make magic happen; no matter how much experience I think I have, the kid is the expert. When I enter a room on the unit with my bag and my clipboard, I am a stranger. By time I leave, I’d like to be a friend – a goal not always attainable, but always set. I try to listen more than I talk. I pick up on the little things. Would she like glitter paint more than regular paint? Princess coloring book or puppies? Should I drop a sheet of stickers in my bag before I come back?
Saturday morning, I met Tyler (name changed) who didn’t look like he was having the best day. He was eight and hanging out with his video games, but I’ve become pretty good at distinguishing bad day faces from good day faces – and this was a bad day. I crouched down by his bed and did a run-down of “my collection” in the playroom. With Tyler, his face lit up when I suggested paint, and so I knew what to suggest next. These are the moments where that goal of making a special connection becomes possible; with the right words and the right timing, I can make a hospital room glow. It’s a kind of magic all its own, but one that anyone who works in a children’s hospital should recognize.
“Hey Ty, I have an idea.” He looked up. “I can bring you some paper to paint.” He nodded. “But do you like to paint other things too?” He looked at me funny. “Well, sometimes, I let kids I really like paint my face.” This is technically a lie – only one other kid has painted my face in the hospital (his hilarious doctor’s idea actually) – but Ty didn’t need to know that.
Ever seen a YouTube video where a kid is asked if they’d like to leave for Disney World in about five minutes as a total surprise? He said yes with the same enthusiasm. To be honest, I didn’t expect quite such a dramatic response.
His lunch came right at that moment, so I excused myself to finish up my rounds – and encouraged him to eat up. I’d be back soon, and he had work to do then.
Thirty minutes – and several delivered board games and art supplies – later, I was back in Ty’s room. “Ready, bud?”
I’m about to show you what happened next – but the best part, and what I can’t adequately show you in a photo or even really describe, was how much of a kick he got out of it. He had this mischievous laugh that led one of the nurses in the hallway to peek her head in to see what was going on. When he finished his artistry, he sent me onto the catwalk – or out to the unit hallway, if you’d prefer to call it that – to show me off to the nurses. Finally, I was allowed to take a look in the mirror. (Thanks to my PAC co-chair, fellow blogger, and texting bestie Jennie David for the photo comparison!)
I get to do this every week. I get so excited about it, which always leads to questions about why I volunteer with sick kids. How could I want to start my weekend in a children’s hospital. Isn’t it sad. Statements, not questions. I do not deny the sadness, but I have had the privilege of seeing so much happiness. I might come last, but the joy I have at the end of each shift makes me feel like I am first. My work with ImproveCareNow is remarkably similar. You know my name and you hear my stories, but I want you to know that I’m here not just for me, but for every patient – your patient. I represent, but I’m last. I know it’s a sentiment that Jennie and I share, and the code by which we work.
I’ve stopped trying to guess what’s ahead for me. My life is changing by the month these days. But I hope that, even as I grow and evolve into new roles, I’ll always know how to spark the magic that can get the room to glow. I want to be brilliant as a physician, but more than that, I want “my kids” to feel brilliant.