This I Believe

Chris - State College, Pennsylvania
Entered on April 2, 2009

I believe in protecting human dignity. For most of my professional life I have worked in health care. I have come to understand that providing high quality, cost-effective care is an important goal, but it is just one outcome of a more meaningful process. The true challenge for health care is protecting human dignity. It is a special calling and a special commitment to serve those who are sick and afraid. Those who come to us for care, want to be healed and want to be reassured but above all else, I believe, they want to be whole, respected and treated as if their dignity mattered.

Two stories from my professional life illustrate what protecting human dignity means to me. The first is about a young man named Ryan. Ryan had cystic fibrosis and by the age of 18 he had spent almost 9 years of his life in the hospital.

Ryan was part of the Children’s Miracle Network, who’s goal is to grant a wish to a sick child whenever possible. Ryan had one wish; he wanted to graduate with his high school class. In June when his classmates were looking forward to graduation, Ryan was in the hospital where he had been for over a month, waiting for a lung and liver transplant. He had done all of the work necessary to graduate, but his health made his wish seem impossible.

Ryan had not talked about his wish during this latest hospitalization but one of the staff remembered and asked him one day, hey, when is graduation? Ryan began to cry and told her that is was that very day. In fact, it was scheduled to begin in three hours. Ryan’s high school was two hours away. Those of you who are fans of ER or Grey’s Anatomy have seen a trauma team spring into action; Ryan’s team did just that.

Escorted by five members of his care team, Ryan and his mother were loaded into a special ambulance, a kind of ICU on wheels, and the team raced to Ryan’s home town. Ryan arrived in time to join his class and walk across the stage to receive his diploma. Ryan returned to the hospital that night to a room filled with balloons, and the shining faces of his care team. It was a fantastic wish fulfilled and illustrates the kind of amazing pinnacle moment that can happen in health care. That story illustrates the power of protecting the dignity of a patient to be more than just a patient.

The next story illustrates this point in a much more sobering way. In October 2006 the nation was shocked when an armed gunman took the lives of several Amish schoolgirls in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Three of the wounded girls were brought to a hospital where I worked.

I can’t begin to describe the impact of caring for those girls on the hospital staff. The Amish families who filled our lobby and waiting rooms did not look to us for answers as so many families do, but looked upon us as strangers from another culture who had their children in our hands.

There is no word for the mix of personal sorrow and highly focused professional care that coalesces in these moments but the emotion lingers to this day. This story too is about protecting the dignity of individuals and their families in their darkest hours.

I have worked in children’s hospitals, community hospitals, with physician practices and in health education. From this lifetime of experience I have learned one fundamental truth, the mission you accept when you enter health care is to preserve human dignity, when possible to restore human dignity and perhaps most importantly to protect human dignity whenever you can.

I believe there is a sacred trust between each of us who make health care our work and those who come to us for healing when they are sick and reassurance when they are scared.

Protecting human dignity requires two essential skills, empathy and hope. Through empathy, we extend to others our own innate understanding of what it is to be human, to suffer, to be afraid and to rely on others for care.

Through hope, we restore the essence of the individual. Even those, whom we cannot make physically whole, can be bolstered with hope. Through hope we give individuals the opportunity to go forward and families a promise of good that may yet come from tragedy.

I go to work every day conscious of the charge I have willingly taken up. I believe in the power to improve the lives of others by acknowledging their humanity. I believe, in protecting human dignity.