How a simple chore transformed my perspective on medicine

My son was born in a small community hospital with breathing and heart issues requiring transfer to a children’s hospital several hundred miles away. I arrived at the children’s hospital, worried, exhausted, and overwhelmed many hours after he did. Everything had happened so quickly my head was spinning.

After I checked on my son, I was directed to the Ronald McDonald house. I arrived in the wee hours of the morning and checked into my room. I was incredibly grateful for a bed and a quiet space after the chaos and stress of the prior hours.

In the morning, the manager on duty gave me a list of the rules and policies of the house. There was no charge to families, each was expected to do a household chore daily. My chore was to vacuum the common spaces. I remember feeling this was an incredible burden and being very annoyed. How could I vacuum when my baby was critically ill? Why would anyone expect a parent to spend an unnecessary moment away from their ill baby, especially for vacuuming?

At breakfast that morning, I looked around at all the other families wondering what tragedy had befallen their family. I noticed no one else was complaining about their chores, they were quietly doing them and moving on with their days. Watching them, I decided I should get my chores done and move on to the most important part of my day.

I found the vacuum and plugged it in, and then I started vacuuming. Moving the heavy, industrial-sized vacuum cleaner back and forth across the well-worn common carpet. While I was vacuuming, I realized something VERY important. A lesson that has, in many ways, shaped the kind of parent and physician I am.

While I was vacuuming, I realized that this was the first time in days that I had done something “normal.” This was the first time that I slowed down and had a moment with myself where I was not pulled in a thousand directions at once. For those 5 minutes, I did something that every other mother in America did: I vacuumed. I was not a mom with a critically ill newborn, I was not fighting for his life, I was not advocating for him with doctors and nurses. I was not living in a crisis. I was vacuuming.

At that moment, I stepped back into the real world. I relaxed. I calmed down. I refocused. I did something that was not about me. It was not about my son. It was not about surviving. It was just vacuuming.

I spent the rest of the day listening to the doctors and their plan, how bad his heart function was, signs of a brain injury, sepsis, IV antibiotics, and respiratory distress. So many things wrong. So many things to fix.

After an insanely long day, I stumbled back to my room to sleep. The next morning, I got up and vacuumed. Every day my son got a little better. I eventually brought him “home” to the Ronald McDonald house and packed him up for the voyage to our house the next day … after holding him while vacuuming the living room for one last time.

Last week as I was vacuuming my office while my residents sat around a table, I remembered the lesson of the vacuum and shared it with them.

As physicians, we often meet people on their very worst days, in their worst moments, in their crises. We sometimes forget what that feels like to them. For us, it is mundane, it is part of our day. We don’t see the shreds of what used to be a normal life, torn to bits by whatever event caused their lives to intersect with ours. We need to remember that they long to be normal to have their lives back, to return to their yesterday.

The hospital is not unlike a vacuum, patients are stripped of normal. Their normality sucked away. We set their schedule, waking them at whatever hour works in our schedules. They are stripped of their clothing and belongings. They are listening to strange sounds: people moaning, cries of anguish, hearing suffering, IVs beeping, and monitors blaring—all unfamiliar and distressing. To us, they are the background music of our lives, to patients it is foreign and disturbing, even disorienting.

They have lost their sense of humanity. Machines are replacing basic, fundamental bodily functions. They rely on someone to help them toilet, they need to eat on a rigid schedule. They have NO control over the pace or timing of their day, their independence has been stripped away.

Medicine has become incredibly impersonal; little of it takes place at the bedside anymore. Patients are left isolated and alone for hours at a time, waiting for someone to respond to the call light. Visitors are restricted. Staff is often masked and gowned, patients don’t always even see a friendly face or smile. With the advent of EMR and MyChart, patients no longer even need actually to see a doctor; they can find out exactly what we are thinking or saying from open notes and often know their results before we do. While convenient and easy this has further dehumanized the process.

Our patients do not live in a vacuum, with the rest of their lives emptied out into blackness when they are ill. The rest of their lives go on, no matter where they are. They still have bills, kids, spouses, jobs, the list goes on.

Our job, as their physicians, is not just to care for them physically but also to address their humanity, to remind them that we do care. We need to give them back some normal when the world is conspiring to take it away.

We need to remember to take a minute, to stop, to do the mundane, to ask a question about them, not their health. Give them a small movement of normal and suck them back out of the vacuum.

Christine Marie Deeths is a family physician.

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