I walked into the room with a smile on my face. I was about to discharge a 3-day-old baby to go home with his parents.
I talked to the new mom and dad about what they should expect over the next few days at home with a newborn. As I examined the patient and placed my stethoscope on his chest, I knew that the course of the morning had changed. He had a loud murmur and abnormal movement of his chest. His femoral pulses were faint. He needed to go to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for medication to keep his heart pumping blood to his body, and fast.
I turned to face his parents, who could tell that something was wrong. I talked them through the next steps, and we safely got the baby to the NICU and ultimately fully recovered from heart surgery to repair his Tetralogy of Fallot.
As a physician, so much of my job depends on the technology of blood tests, CT scans and MRIs. But some of the most meaningful and healing things we do are with our hands, voices and hearts at the bedside. Sure, a 200-year-old technology, Laennec’s stethoscope, saved that newborn that day, but almost as important were the words spoken to the parents allowing them to understand their baby’s diagnosis, the hand on their shoulder keeping them calm in a time of absolute panic and heartache, and the time spent allowing them to process the information and ask every question they had.
I recently cared for a family who had just moved to Georgia from Brazil and had a baby. They spoke English well, but it was their second language. Their baby was admitted with a severe kidney infection and was found to have abnormalities of his urinary tract that made it likely he would have recurrent infections and would possibly require surgery to repair the anomaly.
The baby was doing well and responding to the IV antibiotics he was receiving, but I could sense the mother’s trepidation and overt concern. I reassured her that we were knowledgeable, experienced and well-equipped to help her son fully recover, but she remained skeptical of her son’s prognosis.
I returned to the room later in the day with a Portuguese interpreter. I learned of the family’s journey to America and how thankful they were to be here for treatment. They were concerned and confused about corrective surgery and what that would mean for their child.
An hour-long detailed discussion, via interpreter, including diagrams, enabled them (and me!) to get to know one another, trust one another and meet on common ground for the benefit of the child. Each day thereafter, I was greeted by a hug and a thank you for taking the time to help them feel comfortable, heard and cared for in a holistic manner.
Every day, our medical team of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, child life specialists and volunteers care for our patients in the hospital. We talk to each other using medical jargon, order medications and tests, and do our best to heal our patients medically, but much of the healing we do is at the bedside.
Our nurses and doctors spend time with each family, getting to know them beyond the biomedical basis of the illness, but also on a personal level. We know the names of the child’s pets, who they miss the most at home while they are in the hospital and what the parent’s individual needs are during one of the most difficult situations imaginable.
Our child life specialist relates to children on their level and helps them understand the complicated and sometimes painful procedures they are facing. It is an incredible experience to see a 6-year-old little boy who is afraid of needles get a new IV without even flinching, all thanks to the incredible team who prepared him with what to expect, allowed him to ask questions and then played his favorite games on an iPad while the highly skilled nurses got the IV on the first attempt.
As a Pediatric Hospitalist, I care for families during the most stressful times in their lives – while their child is in the hospital. I learn things about the human condition that can only be taught through experience.
I have learned we often make the largest impact on kids and i families at the bedside, gaining trust, feeling empathy, express-
ing and reflecting upon all the normal emotions of such a high-stakes moment. My stethoscope is a trusted and time-honored tool, one of many that are at our disposal, but no more important than my skills of medical reasoning, communication and decisive action when it matters most.