While at work one day, one of the nurses booked a patient onto my afternoon list as an emergency after being found to have very high blood pressure.
I had never met this patient before, but skimming through the notes, I could tell that Emma was considered as, what is commonly known as a “heart sink patient”, meaning she was a hopeless case. Reading previous entries, I could tell that doctors were fed up with her and that she was asking for help but her needs were not being met. I could sense frustration and hopelessness. She was now reliant on heavy duty medication.
I went to the waiting room to call her in. There stood a petite, older woman, well dressed, reading a book. When I called her name, she turned, smiled at me, picked up her bag and followed me with quick, sprightly steps.
As soon as she sat down, and before she even said a word, I simply knew that this woman was very stressed, agitated and…ignored. Words and apologies started tumbling out of her mouth. Her voice was very coarse and tremulous. I gently put my hand out and said, “Stop… Breathe”. She looked at me incredulously, took a moment to gather herself, then mirrored me and sat upright as I asked her to take some long deep breaths and told her there was no need to rush. Tears started rolling down one cheek.
“Doctor, you are the first person to listen to me. I will tell you my story…”
Emma grew up in the Swiss Alps in a wealthy family. She fell in love with a young English gentleman and moved to London where they were wonderfully happy. A trip overseas for them turned into an appalling nightmare which lasted years and brought them both to rock bottom. The only thing they had was each other. Very slowly they rebuilt their life modestly. Then another blow came for Emma when her husband was diagnosed with leukaemia. Unbeknownst to her, her husband had sworn all the medical staff to secrecy. Emma found out about his diagnosis two weeks before he died. She recalled how the hospital allowed her to take their beloved dog onto the ward and let him lie on her husband’s bed. After he died so quickly, Emma was angry. She was not prepared. She found herself in poverty and resorted to begging on the street. Slowly, step by step, she got herself back to living. Now here she was, sitting in front of me, telling me her life story.
But the extraordinary part came next: Emma sat there, upright, hands together in her lap and said softly “I have had a very good life. I am very grateful”. She told me that as a youngster she had been arrogant and snobbish and that she understood that this was why she needed to be reduced to begging on the street. She felt grateful. She also said that her original anger about her husband’s death had turned into gratitude as she understood that he wanted to protect her and that this was a gesture of love. She was smiling and her eyes were bright. She was so grateful to me for spending time with her and listening. She did not realise that the privilege and honour were mine. She had bestowed a gift on me! Research shows that people who express gratitude regularly are healthier, more optimistic, make more progress towards their goals, have a greater sense of wellbeing, and are more helpful to others.
When we talk about gifts – especially at this time of the year, it is worth asking ourselves and our loved ones what REALLY matters? Perhaps a hand-written and heartfelt letter means more than an expensive material gift? Or maybe making the time for a cup of tea in person instead of a text? What do you consider a “gift?”. Emma was the most beautiful reminder of gratitude. Keep shining Emma. You are a light in this world.
Wishing you all health and happiness,
*Name and some details changed to protect patient confidentiality. Some details have been omitted