Sometimes, when a patient comes to me with a myriad of thorny problems–“My teenage son is stressing me out…I’m so depressed…My back pain has come back…The insurance won’t cover any more physical therapy…None of the medicines are doing any good…My mother’s memory is failing…” I’ll ask, “How were you hoping I could help you today?”
Said unfeelingly, this question may sound like an attempt to shut my ears and cut to the chase. Expressed with genuine concern, however, I hope it comes across somewhat differently–as a wish to make best use of our time together, an invitation to shine a light on a path we can walk together.
While my patients ride out the storm, I’m asking them to identify an umbrella, a doorway, someplace warm and dry.
And their answers can surprise me. Patients know that I can’t make miracles, so they’ll often produce something that is within my powers: “I just want to know that this pain isn’t something bad…I just need a few refills…Do you have something for these allergies?…I need a break so badly–can you give me a few days off from work?”
Right now, I have two elderly patients I’m caring for in the hospital, both in their 90s, both at the end of life. When I ask myself, “How can I help?” I know that I can’t make a father’s cancer go away, but I can honor a daughter’s wish to get him home for the time he has remaining.
And I can’t bring a mother’s memory back and awaken her from dementia, but I can respond sympathetically to her daughter’s hope for a miracle. I can also offer different ways of looking at her mom’s inevitable passing.
I can try to ease suffering.
Asking a patient, a family member or a friend, “How can I help?” is a lovely invitation. It’s another way of saying, “I care about you.” It opens a door–to a connection or to a concrete action.
Can you think of a time when you offered a helping hand to someone, or when someone offered it to you? Can you think of a time when you wanted to lend a hand, but were afraid to ask? Or a time when you wished someone would offer you a hand, a listening ear, or just a ride?
If so, tell us about it in this month’s More Voices—How Can I Help?
New Rochelle, NY