In this month of particularly pink preference I would like to take a moment to honor the caregiver, those folks in the clinics and hospitals who take the time to ask us not just our name and date of birth, but also how we’re really doing.
These people see us at our very worst, when we are the most scared, when we’re in pain, nauseous, and cranky, or just plain irritated with the whole damned (endless) process of getting treatment, or even getting well.
At some point several months into my chemotherapy, I realized that there was a part of me who had resisted learning the names of the nurses there. Usually a person who likes to address people by their names, I would smile and chat, tell stories and joke with them. It was not until I was called to have my vitals taken (since I was so willing to give them) and told that Lisa would help me, that I realized that although I recognized everyone there, I did not know who Lisa was. She was easy to find; everyone wears nametags, but it made me wonder why I didn’t already know her name.
Perhaps it was because despite their kindness, I wanted the relationship to feel temporary, a passing phase, instead of the overwhelming morass of treatment it sometimes represented. It was as if addressing people by name implied even more ongoing treatment than already existed. As it was, I would be stopping in on them every few months or at least twice a year for the foreseeable future. Since chemotherapy treatments lasted several hours every 2-3 weeks and nadir visits (mid point between chemo treatments when the white blood cell count typically bottoms out) were in between, a visit twice a year felt like a long way off and almost like not visiting at all.
Caregivers must walk a challenging line between being friendly, accessible and caring, and then also maintaining enough distance so that they do not feel over involved or blown away when a favorite patient does poorly or dies. Or maybe that isn’t exactly the challenge. Maybe they do allow themselves to connect, and have to find a way to deal with the losses. Maybe they lean on each other, talk amongst themselves, or take time of when they experience a loss or feel particularly sad.
Although it is the sense of normalcy that they bring to treatment which is so helpful, this piece of the routine, too, comes with a price. If they are too flip, too casual, it can seem like they don’t care that you are disrobing in front of strangers over and over. Or that it is your body part which has been insulted, altered or removed and that is so not normal.
Either way, these people come to work each day, and many of them are making a huge effort to be respectful of each individual patient with our varied preferences, diagnoses and reactions to treatment. Even if they are imperfect at it, they deserve kudos for trying. It is the kindness of our doctors and nurses, aids and therapists which can make the difference between our feeling overwhelmed and afraid, or more at ease and confident in the team. This makes all the difference not only in our visit at the time, but what we carry with us when we leave and how we face the next visit. They are the bridge between worlds and they deserve the recognition and gratitude that goes with the depth of their caring.