By Mary O’Brien, M.D.
Do you take care of patients? Are you in a position to teach students or other caregivers? These days, everyone in healthcare is simmering in a sea of policies, protocols, rules, regulations, and algorithms. Some of them are reasonable. A few even make good sense. Unfortunately, however, many of them are downright dumb. Often, by the time someone reaches the lofty position of creating assorted rules and policies, she has lost touch with her sector of the real world. The results are not good.
In recent years I’ve been sidelined with a growing list of autoimmune diseases. I used to joke with audiences that with red hair, green eyes, and see-through skin, I was a walking collection of recessive genes. It’s not a joke anymore. Being in constant pain and steadily losing functional ability is not fun. However, in my new role as “patient,” I have learned a few things that are not taught in most training programs.
In the hope that it might help a few other folks, here’s some of what I’ve learned:
- Sunshine is our friend. Over the years, I’ve spent far too little time outdoors. I was a sickly little kid and a natural-born bookworm. From the mid-1980s on, I was afraid of “skin damage.” Swell. Now I have decent-looking skin but my musculoskeletal system is so badly compromised I struggle to get in or out of a chair. Please encourage patients to get some fresh air and sunshine on a regular basis — especially if these patients suffer from any chronic illness. Vitamin D supplements are fine, but they can’t undo the damage of decades of deficiency.
- Small comforts matter. The point of health care is to relieve pain and suffering. Many of our colleagues have apparently forgotten that. Computers can provide information. They cannot provide comfort and consolation. There is a true art to easing another person’s misery, and it usually involves small, simple measures. “Hugging” a king-size pillow while lying on your side can ease pressure and strain on shoulders, elbows, and knees. Massaging a nicely-fragranced body butter into hands, arms, legs, and feet before bed can help ease the achiness that accompanies chronic illness. It’s not a substitute for proper medication, but these measures can provide a few moments of respite.
- Being squeaky clean feels good. I was obsessed with hygiene even as a little kid. But chronic pain and illness can make taking a shower, washing your hair, and brushing your teeth feel like a triathlon. Nearly anyone who has had the flu can relate. The most simple measures can make a difference:
- Change pillow cases every 12–24 hours. I did this for patients when I was a nurse’s aide 45 years ago. I do it for myself now. If feels nice.
- Step up oral and dental care after meals and before bed. This feels nice, too. And, there are discernible medical benefits.
- Try a shower in the morning and a warm bath at night (as long as it’s safe). Baby wipes, facial wipes, and dry shampoo are essential for travel and chronic illness.
- Never wake a sleeping patient for vital signs. I can hear nursing instructors screaming right now. However, if a patient is sound asleep, her vital signs are probably fine. Despite all of our impressive technology and sophisticated medications, we have found nothing more restorative than good, deep sleep.
If policies and protocols eased misery, everyone would feel fine by now. Sometimes what we need is a bit of common sense.