The Immeasurable Value of Small Acts of Kindness

The virtue of kindness, however small in occurrence, can have profound impact on relationships and on the quality of life for both givers and recipients. Unfortunately we see many missed opportunities in clinical practice. When it does happen, it stands out like a precious gem and greatly enhances provider-patient relationships, as well as the process of healing.

My most recent experience with kindness happened from the perspective of the patient, or rather, the spouse of a patient. About a year ago my wife Marilyn developed appendicitis. Our odyssey started with a five hour stint in the emergency room, a misdiagnosis, surgery two days later, five days in the hospital and a fortunately uneventful recovery.

In the Emergency Department we were visited by two college age volunteers who came around regularly to ask if we needed anything, update us as best they could on the progress of the work up, find out how we were doing and just providing some emotional support. Thinking back now, for both of us the whole Emergency Department experience was complex and very stressful. Yet the caring presence of this young man and young woman was greatly appreciated and vital to getting us through those five hours.

Later, after surgery as Marilyn was begining to take food, she received a late afternoon call from a hospital kitchen worker informing her that the kitchen would soon close and she had not yet ordered anything for dinner. Marilyn was deeply touched to realize someone had noticed this and cared to take the time to call her. While this experience did not represent crucial clinical events, it was still something she shared with many friends for weeks after her recovery.

Earlier in my medical career, as an Ob-Gyn resident, I was once on rounds with an attending physician who had done emergency surgery on a woman with a ruptured ovarian cyst. As a consequence of the cyst rupture she miscarried a very early pregnancy, about which she had not even yet shared with her husband. When told of the loss by the attending physician, she was devastated and began to cry. Rather than mumbling something to justify a quick exit to the door or even just handing her a box of tissues, this compassionate physician took out a tissue and wiped away her tears. From later experience I know that for the woman the personal impact of this small gesture of kindness was gigantic.

Kindness is so precious and so easy to give. Practicing it does not require the degree of formal training needed to master specific traditional clinical skills. Why this simple message cannot effectively get into medical education is puzzling. For starters It would be effortless for medical school faculty and other mentors to share experiences such as these with students and residents.

As a virtue, to develop it needs to become a habit. Yet, it is a habit easy and gratifying to ingrain in our daily lives and in the practice of medicine.

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