Monday, August 2, 2010

Give And Let Give

“You can’t know how you would behave in a crisis until it drops out of the sky and knocks you down like a bandit: stealing your future, robbing you of your dreams, and mocking anything that resembles certainty. Sudden tragic events and even slow-burning disasters teach us more about ourselves than most of us care to know” (7).

- Lee Woodruff, “In An Instant”


As I mentioned at the start of the summer, I have been doing some volunteer work at a local hospital. I really want to talk about the experience, but I am going to keep this sort of general and vague, in order not to violate the privacy of anyone involved.

That said, I have been truly amazed by this experience so far. For me, I wanted to do something fulfilling (and outside of academia), and I also wanted to try and make the hospital a less imposing place for me to be. I didn’t want all of my hospital experiences to be as a patient, to be only on the side of the vulnerable and helpless.

And I’ve seen it now, from the other side. Patients’ families have their own private clubs. It’s like the way it used to be at the airport. They step off of the elevator and run into each others arms. They share in each others joy and sorrow. They celebrate progress made, organs procured. And they mourn losses and setbacks. And they do this together.

I know from my experience as a patient, it is worse to be a family member; watching, waiting, hoping, praying. And to see how these families persevere, given great odds and uncertainty, is truly amazing to me. You’re never quite as alone as you may feel that you are.

I’ve also seen patients come back to visit nurses, to show their appreciation. Patients that were on the brink of death. And I’ve seen nurses smile such large smiles, a combination of pride and admiration, a side so rarely seen. And this is what it’s about. It’s not about what happens in the open, when doctors come to tell families how surgery went. It’s about the moments that happen behind closed doors; the moments when doctor, patient, family, nurse, and all others involved become one, coming together to make sure that the patient gets the best possible care and treatment.

Having seen it on all sides, it’s not easy, no matter which way you look. But it is possible. It is possible that all parties involved will have one common goal; to see the patient through this medical crisis. Despite the minimal information provided, I will say that in the unit I volunteer in, the patients are critically ill.   And I feel lucky that, given my own improvement in health, I am able to donate some of my time to others.

There are multiple sides to every story. What keeps me going is knowing that illness isn’t easy for anyone involved. It’s a journey, a constant evolution of learning and education. And because illness can be isolating, I think we sometimes forget that it isn’t just about us. It is also about our doctors, who try to help and heal us, our family and friends who try to support us, and even those naysayers, who try to make us feel like we are less human because we are sick. The patient experience is informed by all of these entities. And I’m not sure I would have been able to really see that if I hadn’t viewed things from the other side.

There are times in life when you do things, regardless of what may or may not come from such experiences.  Sometimes, in order to get, you have to be willing first to give.  Such is the case with my volunteering. I didn’t go in necessarily expecting to get something in return, and yet, I have. I have enjoyed this foray into the other side of things, viewing the chronic illness experience for perspectives other than that of the patient. And I think this experience has made me appreciate just a little bit more all of the people that are a part of my team, who help me live the best I can with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.


[…] I’ve looked at life from both sides now,
From win and lose, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall.
I really don’t know life at all”

- Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”


  1. My daughter lost her battle but I still remember the ICU nurses who cared for her as well as us.

    They are angels.

  2. A very fitting song for a terrible disorder. I agree with you regarding views/perspectives. As one who has 22 (7 major) surgeries, I know how it is to see fear in loved ones faces and how it is to be afraid first hand. A smile, ah yes, a smile can make a day. Hugs Tazzy

  3. It sounds like a very rewarding experience- I'm glad you're able to volunteer and help others. having been on the receiving end gives you a unique perspective that I hope helps the folks you volunteer with and for!

  4. Hi Leslie, I've left a few comments on your blog now and I'm not sure if you've seen them. Anyway, I wanted to pass along the Versatile Blogger Award because I really enjoy your writing:

  5. Thanks, Maya! Makes me realize I need to get back to responding to comments like I used to.

  6. Leslie, thank you sharing. I really admire the perspective you chose. As a patient, I know that I'm often so caught up in my illness and pain that it's difficult to always remember the medical staff and family members who are an integral part of the healing process. Your effort to not be just a patient is empowering.

  7. Leslie, this was such a great post! I've been on several different sides of this, too, and it's so amazing the love and support the flows all around. Thanks for reminding us patients that we're not the only ones invested in what happens to us.

  8. I always like volunteering as it gives me a sense of pride that I am giving something back to the community. I, however, find it difficult to volunteer in hospitals or nursing homes, because I fear that I am not strong enough to handle the pain of seeing someone suffering from arthritis knee pain and I confessed that it terrifies me to see someone passing away. I commend you on having taken the post for the critically ill people. Maybe someday, I will find the strength in me to volunteer in the hospitals but right now, building homes and teaching street children is a good way of giving something to the future generation.