Anatomy of Kindness

At the end of November I became suddenly acutely ill and for somebody who hadn’t been to a medical doctor since I was in a monastery over forty years ago, my initial response is that ‘I’ll get through this myself.’ Even though the pain was relentless and intense, I stuck to the determination ‘I can ride this storm’ like many other emotional storms I had endured in my lifetime. I stopped eating and was not sleeping. On the third day, under pressure from my long-suffering wife, I went to a local doctor, but, unfortunately, was misdiagnosed and the prescriptions given only exacerbated the illness. Of course, this outcome copper fastened my notion that this is something I can get through myself. Three weeks passed, with no return of appetite, continued insomnia and weight loss of three stone.

On the Monday of the fifth week of the illness, from a place of great concern, a very dear colleague of mine, whose brother is a GP, transported me on icy roads to his brother’s surgery. His brother quickly diagnosed that I was very ill – couldn’t put his finger on what the illness was, but immediately arranged for me to be admitted to the Accident and Emergency Unit in the South Infirmary. Within the hour, I was admitted to the Unit and a team of healthcare professionals began the search for the nature of the illness. I could see that their first hypothesis was cancer, because all the different test results were giving a very confusing picture. To make a long story short, on the third day they diagnosed the illness – a massive infection of gallstones in the gall-bladder, which left untreated for a month, had formed an abscess on the liver. On the Thursday before Christmas they inserted a drain into the liver and so began the draining of all the poisons that had built up over four weeks. It took six days to do the job, but, I was immediately on the road to recovery with one or two hiccups. I was discharged on the Wednesday after Christmas. Spending Christmas in hospital was a transforming experience for me.

The purpose of this article is not to tell you about the illness – that actually is the backdrop to what I really want to write about. What I want to write about is the kindness I experienced from my wife, my secretary, from family members, people I’ve helped, students and neighbours. I particularly want to write about my experience during nine days of hospitalisation.

Two years ago my wife needed to be admitted overnight to another hospital in Cork and her experience of the medical care she received was not pleasant. I also encountered it when I went to see her there. When I was admitted to the South Infirmary, I was expecting similar treatment and was preparing to do battle. However, what transpired was the exact opposite to my wife’s experience. From the moment I arrived in the Accident and Emergency Unit to my discharge nine days later, I encountered professional competence, commitment, kindness, active listening, equality and personalisation. This experience was repeated with every person I met – the porter, the catering staff, the room cleaning staff, the radiologist, the cat-scan specialist, the ultra-sound expert, every nurse, house doctor, medical registrar and the consultants. It is not that as a clinical psychologist that I did not detect personal vulnerabilities in different members of the staff I met, but, their insecurities and fears did not interfere with their professionalism and enduring kindness. My own motto for living is that ‘there is no greater wisdom than human kindness’ and it was humbling to experience that from each member of staff I encountered. If I made every effort to individualise each of them and discover their first name, none of them faltered in remembering my first name. There was also a very visible camaraderie between all members of staff and a prevailing sense of good humour. It was not that staff members were not stressed, working thirty-six hour shifts, it was that they didn’t allow their stress to undermine their commitment to care.

If the HSE are looking for a model of effective medical care, they need look no further that the South Infirmary, Cork. I frequently expressed my appreciation to individual members of staff and the response I invariably got was ‘we rarely hear such appreciative feedback.’ It is what they deserve and I hope this article goes somewhere to making their professional goodness and kindness more visible.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker.  His recent book with co-author Helen Ruddle, The Compassionate Intentions of Illness is relevant to today’s topic.