Dear Inova family:
When two little girls came running up with eyes wide, plaintively crying, “It’s his last chance!”, he knew right away he was in trouble. You see, this dad had gone out with his 6- and 8-year-old daughters to run some errands on a Saturday morning with no thought of stopping by the pet store, much less going in. But that was before they saw the sign that said “last chance pet program.” It was pretty clear, even to the young girls, what squandering that “last chance” might mean for the little black cat. “Santino” must have led a charmed life to have been in just the right place at the right time as that young family walked down the mall hallway when *bang*– the psychic connection between the cat and the two girls crackled to life. As was later observed, literally hundreds of people had walked by that glass window, often looking at the little cat in the window underneath the beckoning “last chance” sign … and absolutely nothing happened. Nada, zilch, nothing – no connection whatever. That illusive intangible ingredient of emotional connection was totally absent.
I have been thinking about human connection recently in a couple of ways. First, as we come up to July 4, many of us will celebrate Independence Day by gathering with our families for a cookout or perhaps a quick trip to the beach. It is an irony to me that we so often celebrate our “independence” by gathering around all the people we love and care about – a de facto testimony to just how “dependent” we humans really are on the feelings of connection we have with our friends and family for our well-being. So, let me get this right: We celebrate our “independence” by emphasizing our interdependence with friends and family. Okay, it doesn’t make much sense to me – I just know that it’s the right thing to do.
When I get home at night, my wife, Peggy, often asks something like, “What did you do today?” I usually stammer around and try to dig up something to report about what went on for me that day. Over the years, I have discovered that I actually have a hard time remembering what I personally did that day. Before you put this down to creeping dementia, I need to say that I do remember a lot that happened during the day; it’s just that nothing that I remember is about what I did. It’s always about how I interacted with (or as noted above, was interdependent with) someone else. In other words, I remember those times when I made some sort of connection with another human being. Sometimes it was in a group or with a single individual, but invariably I only really remember interactions. Hmm, there may be some significance here.
In fact, I believe that the second significant thing each of us needs to remember is that perhaps the only valuable parts of our life can be measured by those times when we make a human connection with others. The patient-experience team within Inova has been working for months to try to understand what is it about how we care for patients and families that really matters to them. Is it the way we speak to them? Is it the way we physically interact? Is it the respect we show when we include them in conversations or respond directly to their questions? What is it that really matters and leads them to say “my experience at Inova was great”?
Well, the research – both with our patients and elsewhere – is clear: What patients value in their care is some tangible sign of human connection. A lot of things do matter, from cleanliness to timeliness of response to the words we choose. But in the final analysis, the thing that matters the most is the perception that someone cares about them. Caring about people is one of Inova’s core values. I think that’s because we know the paramount thing we do is to care about others when they are sick, scared and afraid. Fred Lee (a former Walt Disney executive) says Inova is not like a hotel, where courtesy and respect are enough. No, in healthcare we have to go beyond courtesy and respect, because patients and families need much more than that. They need human connection, and for that you have to have a human being on the other side of the connection – one who wants to be connected to them during their time of need.
You can guess the ending of the story of Santino, the “last chance” cat. The father secretly went back later to the pet store, signed the adoption papers and little Santino was taken to the close-by veterinarian to have the necessary shots before pickup. When the dad brought the two little girls back for the “big surprise” (to pick up the cat), they ran ahead and dashed down the mall hallway, into the store. As the dad struggled to catch up, both girls – with tears flowing – came flying out of the store and buried themselves in their father’s legs. “Santino’s gone! It was his last chance!! We’re too late!!” Sure that the powerful connection they felt for little Santino had been lost forever, they were overcome with grief. It was only when the pet store employee came round the corner with little Santino in her arms that the sobs instantly turned to squeals of glee and laughter. Oh, what a difference that human connection can make, even with a little cat! This Independence Day, I hope you have a chance to spend some time with your friends and family, and get to enjoy a little of that dependency that makes and keeps all of us human and alive. Don’t miss the opportunity to remind yourself of the gift you have at your disposal each day – the choice to connect with other people as you go about your work. Are you going to be like the hundreds that passed little Santino by in the mall and never made a connection?
Or are you going to make memories for yourself, for your coworkers, and for your patients and their families by stopping for just the moment it takes to make that human connection? Someone once said, “To the world you might be just one person; but to one person, you just might be the world!” So go ahead and make that human connection – it’s your best chance to make a memorable difference in someone’s life.
God bless you all,