Close encounters of the patient kind

handsThis morning while watching the horrific news about three young women recently freed from ten years of captivity and unspeakable abuse, I recalled an encounter I had with a young abuse victim early in my career as a hospital marketer.

The ER charge nurse called and asked if I had a camera (I did) and could I bring it immediately to the ER as they needed to capture pictures of a patient’s injuries.  When I pushed through the double doors leading to the patient care area, she led me aside and said, “I’m sorry to ask you to do this but we need  photos of a child with some pretty bad injuries.  Do you think you can handle that?”

Now, I wasn’t the squeamish type, but I was young and pretty naive.  I’m thinking car accident or some other mishap and was not prepared to see a young child wounded by the purposeful, cruel actions of an adult.

Walking into the exam room, a tiny girl, maybe four or five years old, was curled up under thin blankets on the exam table. Deep bruises were evident on her arms and legs, cuts and blood trailed along her hair line. She shrunk into the bedding as I approached.  “Hi there,” I said softly.  “I’m going to take your picture.  Have you ever had your picture taken?” She shook her head ‘no’ and I slipped the Nikon from around my neck and sat it on her bed.  She picked it up, looked it over and, when trusting that it would not hurt her, handed it back to me and smiled.

At that point, I wanted to cry, but lifted the camera and began the process of recording the wounds inflicted by her abuser.  The ER attending pointed out the injuries he wanted photographed.  Bruises, cuts, cigarette burns and others too atrocious to mention.  When finished, I removed the roll of film from the camera and handed it to the charge nurse who would turn it over to the police once they arrived.

“Thank you,” said the nurse when we were back in the hall.  “This isn’t her first visit here but, God and the legal system willing, we’re hoping it’ll be her last.”

“Who would do such a thing to an innocent child?” I asked.  “Her mother,” she replied.

Back in the office, I shut the door, turned out the lights and sat in the dark.  That was the first direct encounter I’d had with a hospital patient and it left me shaken, sad and angry.  In the years to come, I would meet many more patients and family members at the most scared, painful, hopeful and sacred times in their lives – the grandmother saying goodbye to her dying 19 year old grandson, new parents showing off their healthy triplets, moms and dads rushing to the ER to find their children okay after an early morning school bus accident, the middle-aged man with a new heart and years yet to spend with his loving wife and family, the grieving mother of the heart donor.

I don’t know why this is weighing heavy on my mind today.  Whatever the reason, it’s reminded me that this business of healthcare is important work.  Our doctors, nurses, emergency responders and others on the frontline witness the ravages of evil more often than we care to admit.  But they also see the good and, occasionally, the miraculous.  And for that, I’m grateful.

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