On Christmas Eve day, I took my mother in for an echocardiogram. Fascinated by the images on the screen, and wanting to help keep my mom comfortable, I asked permission to pull up a chair next to my mom and watch more closely. I was struck by two things during the experience. One; that today’s imaging resources provide invaluable diagnostic information, and two; that science can’t begin to see inside the human experience.
The image on the screen showed the valves, the blood flow and the rhythm created by moving muscle. I was awestruck to think that this muscle, no bigger than my fist, beats billions of times during the course of a human life without help and without notice. It is quietly involved behind the scenes of every moment of every day. And without it, we cease to exist. It’s no wonder that we use the word "e;heart"e; so often in describing things of importance.
As a nurse, I fully understand the importance of the echocardiogram and other diagnostic tests. The images can tell the physician just how effective the muscle is in supplyinhg blood needed to fuel other vital organs. The test can provide data needed to guide diagnosis and treatment. But what the echo and all of the other tests we rely on don’t reveal is the real history behind this heart. Not the medical history but the heart history. Watching my mother on the table during her echocardiogram, I felt overcome by emotion. It wasn’t that the technician was rude or cold. She wasn’t. She was polite, but technical. After all, she had a job to do. But several times during the encounter, I wanted her to look past the end of the probe and see the person behind the organ. I wanted her to understand that THIS heart belongs to a real person. THIS heart has been beating for 82 years through the births of 11 children, through the miles walked and milestones reached. THIS heart beat faster as a young bride looking into the eyes of her new husband. THIS heart has been filled with gratitude for countless blessings and with pride when she guided her students in learning English, speech and communications. THIS heart has been filled with joy as she held each newborn child and grandchild, with light when she received holy sacraments, with hope when she refused to be discouraged by life’s hard blows. THIS heart has been broken at the loss of an infant, the death of all of her siblings and parents. THIS heart is heavy today as she sees her husband of 62 years slipping further into dementia.
When we look at our patients what are we seeing? A diagnosis? A procedure? A task? We’ve been talking a lot about improving the patient experience in health care. If we really want to make a difference, start by looking past the procedure and the task list, and really look at the patient. See them for more than a diagnosis or treatment. See them as real people with real stories and rich history. Then and only then, will we be focused on the heart of health care and will be ready to improve the patient experience.