We are all Icebergs: The Power of Understanding the Stories that Lie Beneath the Surface of Our Patients

We all have a story.

For the longest time I felt like a foreigner in healthcare. With a background in English Writing and an intuitive pull towards all things artsy and right brained, healthcare–both the business and clinical aspects–left me feeling like a ballerina on a baseball field.

For a long while I thought that in order to be effective I had to be more balanced, so much so that I have found myself in the middle of getting my MBA. And you know, there is something to that. My MBA program has given me a broader perspective on things like what a p-value is and how to do a flow chart, in addition to connecting me with a lot of really amazing people and opportunities. I have no regrets.

Except my stats class. Maybe I regret that.

But more than anything I have learned that in order to truly be effective, I must be genuine, and to be genuine, I must be me: writer. storyteller. dominant right brained thinker. I have realized that as much as I need the left side brain to balance out my right, healthcare needs the right side to balance out the left. And I can bring that. I’m all over that.

As foreign and awkward as it can seem, I have seen the power of bringing stories into the everyday of healthcare. I have seen the effectiveness of a well told story to help connect the dots for caregivers on the impact they have on people’s lives from a safety, quality and service perspective, much more so than any didactic, power point presentation could ever do.   And I LOVE stories.

One of the ways we encourage caregivers to get to know the stories of their patients is by teaching to the metaphor that we are all icebergs. When we meet someone, whether it be a new patient or a new colleague on the team, all we see is the itty bitty tip of the iceberg of that person. In many cases, all we see is a diagnosis: Hernia. What we don’t see is who they are and the circumstances that are surrounding their life– their iceberg underneath.

To illustrate, I have been telling the story of my sister in law who recently lost her husband. It was unexpected and sudden. The loss still knocks the air out of my chest. He left a beautiful  five year old daughter and six month old twins. With his passing still fresh and raw, both twins got sick with upper respiratory infections.  She ended up in the ER. Then, a week later, I get a text that she has a hernia and is going in for surgery.

To her cargivers, it would be easy to only be aware of the tip: an otherwise healthy, 30 -something female coming in for hernia repair.  But what if she was cranky? What if she was stressed or sad or a little on edge?  What if she came across as demanding or needy? It’s all too easy to label patients as “difficult” without taking the time to understand even a little bit of their story and what might be driving their stress and anxiety. By taking the time to get to know each other, both colleagues and patients, we open ourselves up to be able to connect with their stories and consequentially extend empathy to them in positive ways that leave lasting impressions. 

Every patient is an iceberg, as are we. The more we understand this, the easier it is to extend empathy and compassion to those we interact with everyday, knowing they are fighting battles as difficult, if not more so, than our own.








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