The nurse’s comments got me thinking about the essence of advocacy.
“Wow. You really know a lot of people,” she said, as she directed my husband, still in his hospital bed thirty hours after bypass surgery, from the surgical intensive care unit to the cardiac surveillance unit one floor up. She and her partner had transfered the oxygen to a portable unit, hooked the IV bags to a pole attached to the bed post, and tucked the tubes feeding the fluid bags away from the floor. I nestled his small black bag at the end of the bed, and found room in my own tote for the electronics. On the way out of the room, I saluted the nurses at the station with a wave and a general thank you. Their shift would end in an hour or so, and I wouldn’t see them again. A small part of me was sorry to leave this group of dedicated professionals who had taken such extraordinary care of my husband. Passing by the other rooms, I spied nurse Ryan attending to another patient. He had been there the day before, surgery day, and I called out his name as I waved. As we moved toward the exit, a person I didn’t know waved good-bye from the last room.
We didn’t really “know” these people, not in the deep, complicit way you would know a family member, a friend, or a co-worker, their mannerisms, gifts, or idiosyncracies. We had met, them, though, and, yes, we had taken the time to chat with them. Elmer’s recovery was in their hands, and we meant to let them know we expected only the very best care. The nurse’s comments reminded me that inasmuch as our conversations were sincere, they were also intentional. They enabled us to advocate for Elmer and for ourselves.
As I mulled over the concept, I came to understand that our advocacy took other forms as well.
We were present. For the surgery day, as well as the day before and after, the children and I made ourselves comfortable in the unit waiting rooms. We had books, board games, drinks, and food, and we were ready for the long haul. Someone was with Elmer for every moment the rules allowed.
We respected protocol. If the rules said only two visitors, we went two at a time. When I stayed through the night on surgery day, the rules said one hour in the room and two hours away. No problem. We were there to support Elmer, not to get in the way of the staff doing their job. (Today, in fact, the Saskatchewan government announced that, by Christmas, patients’ families will be able to visit at any time!)
We smiled and laughed a lot. In that way, we supported each other and Elmer through a tense time. He said afterward that our upbeat attitude helped him manage the stress. Maybe it helped the staff feel comfortable as well. At the very least, it took the edge off.
We engaged with the staff. We wanted them to know that we honored their work and the expertise and experience they brought to it. Conversation was our tool, and the staff took the time to reciprocate.
We asked questions—about their work and families, about the procedures, about Elmer’s progress, about timelines and prognosis. As Elmer regained his strength, he, too, chatted up the staff about their countries of origin, their experiences, and their interests.
We said Thank You. On the first day, I mentioned to nurse Ruth how much I appreciated the timely flow of information. She anticipated the details we would need and the moment they would be most valuable. As a result, we didn’t have to pull teeth to find out what was happening. At those words, she stopped for a second. A smile transformed her face, and she glowed. I wondered how such ordinary words could have such a dramatic effect. But then, as a teacher, I know how much any recognition of my efforts meant to me in my work.
What we had done, it became clear, was advocate through our actions, not our words. One smile, one hello, one good morning, one story, one laugh, one remark at a time, we had communicated positive energy that buoyed not only ourselves and Elmer, but Elmer’s caregivers as well.
Actions unleash forces that either enhance our experience or make events we face more difficult. Small, incremental gestures colour how people respond to us. Whether we are intentional about those actions or whether we are oblivious to their effect, they impact the events of our lives. Much better, then, to be conscious of the power of our actions in situations over which we might not have a lot of control.
As the Chinese the poet Lao Tzu writes in a text I found just this morning, “[The Wise Man] teaches not by speech but by accomplishment.” Actions convey messages, and those messages have power. Best, then, to make them positive and intentional, and watch them, say, help someone recover from surgery or sustain his family or lighten the load of his caregivers.