In reading through the eight journals that I filled during this cancer journey, I came across a forgotten moment that sparked a meditation on the power of gratitude:
After 10 days in a coma-like state in the intensive care ward after his combined liver lobectomy and colon resection, John’s breathing tube was finally removed. The first thing he said was, “When can I have some water?” The second was “Tell the doctor thank you.” The young male nurse who was caring for him at the time reported that after my friend and I went home for the night, he heard John calling for help. He came running in, thinking that there was some sort of a crisis. John was saying, “You’ve got to help me. I need your help,” in a very urgent tone of voice. When the nurse asked what was wrong, John said,
“I want you to tell the doctor thank you for me.”
When I saw John’s surgeon the next morning, I told him that the second thing John said after his breathing tube was removed was “Tell the doctor thank you.” Then I told him about John’s urgent instructions to the nurse. The previously emotionally distant doctor’s eyes filled with tears. Clearly touched, he looked directly at me and said quietly,
“Thank you. It’s really good to hear that.”
Remembering that moment sent my mind back to another moment in the intensive care unit when our gratitude had a profound effect upon the medical staff. After John was released from ICU, we decided that we really wanted to say thank you to the nurses who did such a great job of caring for him while he was there. My friend, who is a hospice nurse suggested chocolate, saying, “I haven’t met a nurse yet who isn’t crazy about chocolate.” When I delivered the beautiful box of Belgian chocolate (and a heartfelt note about the healing power of compassion) to the nurse on duty, she burst into tears.
“No one ever thanks us for the good things we’ve done,” she said. “We always hear about the things that went wrong, and sometimes families get so angry with us for things that aren’t even our fault, but hardly anyone ever thanks us. You have no idea how much this means to us.”
Six months after John was released from the hospital, we were in the elevator to the parking garage when one of the young male nurses who had taken car of John in the ICU stepped in. I recognized him immediately and said, “I remember you! You took such good care of my husband when he was in ICU. “ He looked a little uncertain, so I reminded him, “You were just being trained. Your partner then was Charles.” His eyes lit up as he remembered, then he glanced shyly at John and said, “It’s really good to see you walking around. You look great.” When he exited the elevator, John commented,
“It really meant a lot to him that you recognized and remembered him. He was really touched.”
When I look back now to the reactions of those we were thanking, it seems that maybe expressions of patient gratitude aren’t all that common. Maybe gratitude is something they don’t expect, but that they really need. Even the seemingly small act of remembering the names of the nurses who cared for John helped to connect us– they in turn would remember me in the hallways, and many stopped to ask how John was doing, long after he left their care. There is no question that John’s doctors were profoundly affected by our gratitude, judging from his surgeon’s reaction to our thank-you letter:
“I will carry your letter with me always.”
These stories seem to me to illustrate that the effects of gratitude flow in more than one direction. While there is no doubt that both the surgeon and the nurses benefited from our expressions of appreciation, we also benefited from the deeper bond we forged with them. I would like to believe that our heartfelt thank-you’s helped to nurture greater compassion for all future patients.
For all cancer patients and their loved ones: please remember that gratitude heals both the recipient and the one who is expressing it. Gratitude nurtures compassion in everyone who is part of the gratitude equation.