Tag Archives: humanity

by the numbers

A part of having a highly variable workload from day to day is that it becomes necessary for me to show my work. I have to keep statistics, in the form of a list of time definers. Checkmarks, quite literally, for exactly what I did as part of saving a life.

I always have a bit of a chuckle as I’m doing my stats. How are these numbers even calculated? How have they figured out that it takes 17 minutes to do a respiratory assessment, 8 minutes to change a cylinder, 18 minutes to insert an arterial line? There are many where I write down actual time spent, and it seems a cold kind of truth to me that at the end of the day, 45 minutes spent counselling a family about the impending death of their loved one gets aggregated with other staff members for my department over the month, and written in a tidy little box. #3740, service recipient support, a nice round number for a bureaucrat to sign off on. The funniest part is that I’ve done stats at other places where this kind of service wasn’t even something they had a time definer for. As far as the bureaucrats could see, emotional support didn’t exist.

It seems funny to me that I can distill a really fraught encounter down to numbers. A code on the floors, intubated, sent to ICU, set-up on the vent and handed off. It rounds up to around 4 hours of work, spread across a multitude of time definers. What isn’t in the stats is the looks I exchanged with the ICU nurse, the frustration at the physician who was content to sit on his hands, using my ass to hold open an elevator door, rearranging a barely-set-up-freshly-clean ICU room, and the heartbreak of prolonging the inevitable indefinitely. It doesn’t include the bone-weariness that comes with five flights of stairs times five or six trips up and down. It doesn’t include an entire team of people content to place their anxiety at not knowing what to do squarely on your shoulders, because now you’re here, and they don’t have to worry. But no pressure.

No pressure. I mean, I don’t stat mistakes as mistakes, they just get lumped in with an actual time definer. (#4420, arrest attendance.) It’s funny to me that things which are truly chaotic, which can truly not be distilled down to a series of single actions are lumped in together. The time definer for arrest attendance may as well be #4420: unmitigated chaos.

How does one stat “agonize over a decision”? How do you stat “sat in boss’s office venting”? It’s a rhetorical question — I could find a way to stat either one — but the point is, I can’t put a numeric representation on how hard I’ve worked when sometimes the hardest things I’ve done aren’t things with statistics attached to them.

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blinks of life

Relatively speaking, with consideration for the span of a lifetime, the amount of time I get with a patient is rather short. Days, weeks, even months or a year don’t accurately reflect the fullness of a life lived outside the concrete box that is a hospital.

I don’t realize this at the time, really. There’s other things that concern me when they are in the ICU with tubes down their throats. It’s sometimes kind of striking later when you read their obituary and find out they were an avid hedgehog breeder, a rabid hockey fan (with pictures to prove,) or even, in another life and at another time, a hugely important civic personality, a philanthropist, a businessman or woman, or a humanitarian crusader.

It’s easy to lose sight of this. The depth and reality of an entire human life is such an immense time of otherwise indigestible details… it’s inabsorbable, at least in five minutes, or at most, a week or a month or a year. I will never know you as your family or your loved ones know you. I will never know you as you know yourself.

I am, however, quite treated to these little glimmers of what you are as a person. Perhaps it’s your common-law husband, talking to us while you’re comatose, of your philanthropic ventures. Perhaps it’s the name you’ve made for yourself in the community, the fact that the other healthcare professionals responsible for your life know what you’ve done. Perhaps it’s how you treat us, these faceless agents of the system, in how you call us angels and/or assholes. Perhaps it’s even being able to experience you on a daily basis, and to have you declare that you have adopted us as newfound family.

I keep the happy little moments close. Even if things didn’t go as planned. Even if you ended up passing on far before your time. Even if I have to endure the march of family following after your downturn, ensuring with their own eyes that indeed, the truth is real, that you are closer to death than they’d ever want to realize. I like to think about your personalities in the best of times, how you taught, how you advocated for your isolated community that only you cared about, how your wife loves you so much she would be here to watch you struggle even to the detriment of herself.

I won’t pretend that all that I get is positive. Sometimes you’ve been out of jail only long enough for us to declare you dead due to a gang-related incident. Sometimes you have no family, and the only people who see your beauty are those of us tasked with poking you with sharp things and wiping your ass. Sometimes you’re an insufferable asshole, and even your family physician will not at all hesitate in telling us exactly so.

I think the thing that I have most intimately learned in this situation is that I am completely unable to judge a person. All that I get are the tiniest sparks of life, the most washed-out and grainy snapshots of a person. You are something to someone, perhaps everything to everyone, or nothing to no-one.

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