Patient Experience: What A Veteran Taught Me

Some days, the best thing you can do is to be present. Last week I had such a day. I arrived for my meeting with the director of a large VA facility. The taxi dropped me several buildings away from my meeting, so I created my own way-finding path through the hospital.

During my ten-minute walk I passed dozens of unknown heroes. Veterans of all ages, colors, and backgrounds. As I made my way down an almost vacant polished hall, I was confronted by a man’s raspy voice.

“Where are you going young man?”

The gentleman had my attention just by referring to me as young. He was seated in a wheelchair that was parked next to the wall. To set the scene, he is African-American—in know the English majors will write me saying that I just messed with a past present participle about something having to do with the tense I used, but he was, and thankfully he is.

The veteran wore a black baseball-style cap, the embroidery commemorating his service in Korea. A medal was affixed to his worn sweatshirt. Not being an anthropologist, I estimated the gentleman, the gentleman who sought my attention, was in his eighties. (That made me a young man.)

A brief aside. I was vey uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable not because I might be late for my meeting, not for being called out by a stranger, but for feeling inadequate and unworthy to say anything that could be of much value to him.

Nobody had ever shot at me. I have never knowingly spent the night in in a foxhole thousands of miles from my home wondering if I would be alive for breakfast. The gentleman before me probably had. His eyes looked through me as though I was simply a prop in something he had endured long ago.

“I’m Bill,” he told me. We shook hands. His fingers were long and sinuous, and weathered with age. I noticed his yellowed fingernails were neatly manicured. Bill paused, and I attributed his pause to him reflecting over what I assumed to be decades of memories. I was grateful for the pause, because I did not have any idea about what he hoped for in terms of a response from me.

“You look like a school principal,” he told me—suit, briefcase, polished shoes.

Not caring if I would be late for my meeting, I knew the most important, and best part of my day was going to happen in the next few minutes. Bill’s skin hung from his frame like sheets of wrinkled wallpaper that were no longer affixed to the wall. Without any knowledge of the appropriate decorum for how to address the gentleman facing me, the former soldier, I placed my briefcase on the floor, and sat cross-legged on the worn, linoleum tile.

I recall wishing that I had been wearing clothes from the Salvation Army, not because I did not want to dirty my suit, but because I was afraid my clothing might have made me standoffish. Bill was not put off by my attire, and by God’s grace, I sensed he knew his did not put me off.

I wish I understood everything Bill said. I sensed he simply wanted someone to speak with him, and so that is what we did. All he wanted was someone’s ear, and I was lucky to have two ears that were not being used.   We did not trade great insights, we simply shared a few minutes of time. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can improve someone’s patient experience for free.  Maybe you can even make someone’s day. He sure made mine.

Please know, I was not prompted to write this because of me, this has nothing to do with what a great guy Paul is for spending a few minutes with an elderly veteran.

My only reason for writing today is to share that I will end this day better than I started it. I hope I will be better for having had it, for having participated. I will end it without knowing what this gentleman did to earn my respect and fealty, but I know he did.

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