Saturday morning, David and I woke to a noisy buzzing alarm coming from the elevator in the hallway of our building. It was stuck on our floor with its doors half open. Because it’s the weekend, I’m not hopeful of it getting fixed promptly. Next, as if we are under attack from a conspiracy of machines, our normally silent dryer started making a loud thumping noise, like tumbling canvas shoes, but all that’s in the drum is a small load of delicates. David is on his computer, looking for a repairperson as I write this post. The coincidental mechanical malfunctions remind me that as long as things meet my expectations, I often take them for granted.
At a social event, I was surprised to see an ex-patient and his wife also in attendance. I remembered them vividly, because of the longer than expected amount of time spent admitting him to our unit. The husband had the misfortune of being discharged from the hospital on a Saturday evening. Commonly, hospitals have a minimum of discharge planners on weekends, and the discharge planner’s job is frustrated by the fact that most of the outpatient services he or she needs to coordinate are closed. Also, he did not have a primary care provider, meaning no physician or nurse practitioner was in charge of his outpatient follow-up. To fix this problem, he was given a physician referral, and a phone number to call on Monday.
He arrived in our ambulatory clinic on a Sunday morning for daily treatment in pain, after a difficult night at home. His wife and son accompanied him. The son was concerned about the eschar on his father’s wound, and I agreed with his assessment. Eschar is a dark, leather-like tissue formed on the surface of a wound. In the worst- case scenarios, it creates a tight band around an extremity, cutting off the blood flow to the body part below it. It increases the patient’s pain by preventing oxygen-rich blood from reaching the affected area. Fortunately, the body part below the eschar of this patient was warm to touch, with strong pulses, and a brisk capillary refill, so he wasn’t in imminent danger. He didn’t have a fever, and his vitals signs were normal, so pain control and obtaining a surgical consult became our priorities. We needed a doctor to write orders.
Luckily, the resident who treated my patient in the hospital was still there. I paged him, and told him what was happening. He agreed to see the patient in the clinic. This was generous of him, because once a patient is discharged from the hospital, technically, he is no longer responsible for his care. He wrote a script for breakthrough pain medication, and made a phone call for a surgical consult to address the eschar. In this way, the patient avoided a trip to the ER, the only other option on a Sunday. On Monday morning, a surgeon removed the eschar. I was pleased with myself for mobilizing the necessary resources on a weekend. The rest of the patient’s course flowed uneventfully until discharge.
At the social event, I approached the former patient and his wife to say hello. Looking at me blankly, they reciprocated, then awkward silence. Realizing I’d made a mistake, I said, “I didn’t mean to bother you. We’ve met before. I just wanted to say hello.” “Really?” said the wife. “Where would that have been?” Uh, oh. I mumbled the name of the hospital, but not the unit. Even the name did not prompt a recollection. They continued to stare blankly. I desired to end the interaction, unsure if I was circling the drain of a possible HIPPA violation. Complementing the wife on her earrings, I retreated to another part of the room.
Later, it occurred to me that their discharge ordeal wasn’t an ordeal to them, because by means of coöperation and teamwork, I fixed it. They expected a smooth discharge with seamless follow-up care, and they got it. They took it for granted, because they didn’t experience the frustration of falling through the cracks. They didn’t recognize me, because I hadn’t stood out. They did not experience poor care versus quality care. In their mind, I did my job, and that did not merit recognition. They are right.
I appreciate the effort hospital administrators make each year during Nurses Week to thank nurses. Recognition for a job well done is one way of saying, “Thank you.” However, a lack of recognition, because the person served is unaware of the effort made on their behalf, is a form of reward too. The best recognition of a job well done comes from within.