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Two Transformational Words for the ED

I vacation in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, once a year. That alone amazes me, but something that happened on this year’s annual escape, to visit my in laws, amazed me even more. Every visit is much of the same—a Brewers game, a picnic on Lake Michigan, lots of bike riding.

The drama began with a dull pain in my lower abdomen, the day we arrived in Milwaukee. It persisted into the evening, prompting me, unable to ignore it, to visit a local walk-in clinic, where a urine sample substantiated a UTI. I was given a broad-spectrum antibiotic and a well-wish, and thought I was on my way.

But, nevertheless, the pain increased severely, and an episode of bright-red bleeding on urination, the next morning, sent me to the emergency room. Ten team members, versed in my medical history, appeared individually throughout the day. “So you live in Tampa but were vacationing here, in Sheboygan, when this happened?” each one said while recounting my history, before performing their assigned task.

Here is a recap of my ED experience:

  • A supervised nursing student tried three times, unsuccessfully, to start my IV, and then told me she was four successful sticks away from certification.

  • A male nurse who did my assessment told me how busy the ED had been earlier that morning, and that he still had hours to go.

  • A doctor told me his intended plan of treatment, and was most professional.

  • A radiology-tech student who wheeled me to X-ray never said a word.

  • An admitting clerk asked, “Why would anyone vacation in Sheboygan?”

  • An EMT who was referred to as "the best stick in the hospital" told me that he missed, on average, only two IVs a year. I, as luck would have it, became one of his bad statistics.

Diagnosis: I spent the first five days of my vacation passing a kidney stone, and had trauma to my urinary tract.

Granted, the diagnosis wasn't the biggest deal in the world, and I was confident I'd make a full recovery. The big deal was the two words that no one on the care team uttered—I'm sorry.

Ten team members, six hours of care, perfunctory hourly rounding, an accurate diagnosis, and appropriate treatment, and not one person said, “I’m sorry." They simply busied themselves, with plenty of gray space between them and me, and never pictured the experience from my vantage point. If even one team member had said, "Boy, that stinks, having to spend your vacation passing a stone,” or even, “Bummer," I would have given them a 5, instead of a 4, on the patient survey I received after returning home.

Let me be clear: I didn’t need their sympathy; I have a wonderful husband and family for that. Rather, I wanted their empathy. Two words—"I'm sorry"—would have transformed them from professionals who perform tasks to humans who really care about patients. Come to think of it, even "sorry" (much easier!) would have changed everything.

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