TWO WEEKS after I underwent foot surgery, I decided to attend a national nursing conference. How hard could it be to spend the day in a classroom learning how to be the best of the best? Little did I know that I was about to learn something very different.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten how big conference centers were. By the end of the first day, I was in so much pain that I rented a wheelchair for the following day's events and began teaching myself how to use it.
As I wheeled myself back and forth to the various conference rooms, I quickly learned how challenging, and sometimes dangerous, it can be to be a “patient” in a wheelchair trying to maneuver in a crowd. I figured I'd have help because nursing executives from award-winning hospitals were volunteering as docents in every classroom. I couldn't have been more wrong.
In one class, I wheeled myself to the back of the room and waited for the session to start. For the next 15 minutes, nurses squeezed by me as they tried to get to the best seat in the house, their conference bags beating me about the head and face. I might as well have been invisible in my new wheelchair.
At the end of the class, I wheeled myself to the door and asked the docent if she could push me to the elevator down the hall. “No,” she replied, “I have to stand here to answer questions.” Not, “No, but I'll find someone to help you,” or “No, I'm sorry.” Just “No.”
As I wheeled myself down the hall, the wheelchair careened from left to right as attendees raced past me to catch the elevator. I maneuvered myself inside facing the back of the crowd, shocked at the behavior of these caring professionals. This was definitely a new perspective for a nurse.
At the end of the conference, haggard and worn, I went to the airport and requested wheelchair service. A young man approached me and, looking me straight in the eye, said, “Ma'am, your troubles are over. My name is Winston and you are now on the Winston Express.”
He wheeled me slowly down the corridor. When a threshold in the floor came up he slowed to a complete stop, bent toward my ear, and said, “I'm slowing down so the bump does not cause you pain.”
Further down the aisle he leaned forward again and whispered, “See that woman up there? She isn't paying us any attention. I'm going to give her a wide berth so her suitcase doesn't end up in your ear.”
We came to a rather steep ramp. Looking down, I felt like I was in the front seat of a roller coaster. Surely I would fall on my face before reaching the bottom. But Winston turned the chair around and backed me down the ramp while explaining, “I am walking you backwards for your safety.”
At airport security, when my shoe came through the X-ray scanner, I went to reach for it. After all, I was a healthy woman who just couldn't walk long distances. Winston stopped me gently with a wave of his hand, picked up the shoe, and placed it on my foot. With a wink, he said, “Remember, this is the Winston Express.” A scene flashed across my mind of Cinderella and Prince Charming. At that moment, the wear and tear of the conference and the lingering post-op pain melted away. I felt truly cared for.
Cultivating our caring skills
When I returned to work, I was totally absorbed in my thoughts, which crowded out memories of my experience with Winston. Which overdue project should I start first? How many hundreds of emails could I clear in an afternoon? Preoccupied as I entered an elevator, I inadvertently blocked several riders getting off. “Shouldn't she have let us out before getting on?” a woman muttered to her friend.
It was too late for me to apologize. She was gone and the door had closed. Winston's caring smile came to the front of my mind as if to chastise me for making a thoughtless caring error, much like my colleagues at the conference.
I have come to realize that avoiding caring errors is just as important as clinical expertise. It is our duty to become consistently excellent with our caring skills. We all need a little spirit of Winston inside to remind us to be the most caring people we can be every day.