To the Inova family,
I was a little put out when I went outside my office to greet the folks in the waiting area who were there to tell me “thank you.” Even though they were the ones who had been waiting for several minutes as I concluded my last appointment, it was I who was a little peeved. You see, I was behind in my work that day and would have loved to have gained a few minutes to catch up on a couple of important things I needed to attend to. After exchanging greetings, the family presented me with some brownies and a nice bouquet of flowers. I started to feel uncomfortable about my impatience in having scheduled the appointment. By the time we finished talking, quite frankly, I felt terrible. Let me explain why.
After recounting a brief review of the care they had received, the family went directly to the business at hand—they wanted to thank me for what we had done for their child and wanted to know what they could do for us to show their appreciation. My first response was to tell them that “helping people is what we do” and that no thanks or recompense were required. I went on to say that we are a team of professionals and we love what we do. I wanted them to know there was nothing they could do for us that we already didn’t have.
After uttering these self-important words, I was struck by how quickly their faces showed real distress over my verdict that we did NOT need them and that there was NOTHING they could do to repay the gift we had given them. After a little superficial additional conversation, they went on their way and I was left to ponder the exchange we had just had. I knew that they had come in full of hope and expectation, and they left crestfallen and sad. What had I done to so badly harm their feelings and reduce them almost to tears from I had said?
For some reason, my mind went back to a time when my father had presented me with a surprise Christmas present a couple of days before Christmas (something that he had never done before – I had always received a gift from my mother and father together!!), and I had nothing to give him in return. In fact, I had spent all my money and had really no way of getting him ANYTHING! It was a terrible feeling to be indebted to someone I cared about with no prospect of “getting even” or reclaiming my ability to give as well as receive. The fact that my father expected nothing in return didn’t seem to help my feelings of impotence and frustration at all.
As I thought about the unsettling feeling that had descended upon me after the grateful family departed, I realized just how selfish our “professional” posture of declining thanks and help from our patients truly was. One of the best things we do at Inova is help others, sometimes in transformational ways. Often, we do things that have incredible value and we often work hard to go “above and beyond”- to achieve a true “wow” from our patients and their families. Usually, when they try to thank us, we say something like “it’s what we do” or “it’s all in a day’s work for us” – in short, we don’t accept their thanks in an open hearted way, much less give them the satisfaction of being able to “get even” and give us something of value. I suspect this is not something we do with mal intent but something we do without thinking about those who really NEED to give back.
I love the story that is told of the little girl who gives her daddy a present for Christmas but when he opens an elaborately wrapped package with a fancy ribbon/bow, he finds it totally empty. His reaction is to berate the little girl with “you wasted all our money on this fancy wrapping paper just to wrap an empty box?! Don’t you know that money is tight around this household right now?!” To which the little girl tearfully replied, “Daddy, it’s not empty – it’s filled with my kisses – you just can’t see them!” You see, the little girl NEEDED to give something to her daddy and not just be a recipient. As the story goes, the father through misty eyes told his daughter, “That’s the best present I could ever get. Thank you so much for your gift. I really NEEDED those kisses.” The truth is what we don’t just need the kisses (which we all do!) but more importantly, we need to be able to give them to others. When we are served by others, we need to serve them (and love them) back! It’s the way we recover our self respect and feel needed and appreciated – a universal need for everyone.
So remember when a patient or a patient’s family says “thank you for what you’ve done,” accept their thanks graciously, and, if possible, find a way to let them help you back. I often ask if they would like to talk with someone from the Foundation. I also love those brownies – perhaps a little too much! To let a grateful family give of themselves to help us do for other families what we did for them is another form of serving others. And in the final analysis, those kisses that you give to others ALWAYS come back to you. And THAT is the sweetest outcome of them all.
God bless you,