I sing with a band, The Midlandaires, and our keyboardist Doug recently experienced the near death of one of his sons, Rick. Seems the doctor was performing a relatively straight forward, standard operation but somehow nicked Rick's esophagus, nearly killing him. He's still in hospital, now several weeks later, and while he'll live, it's going to take a long time to come back. More operations to repair the damage await him.
Needless to say, Doug was beside himself with fear and grief, and at his son's bedside in the hospital day and night. His anger about the doc that created this situation was mounting.
I've got some personal experience with this kind of thing, and here's what I sent Doug via email:
Doug, this may allow you a few moments to focus on something else as a break from the stress and frustration I know you are experiencing right now.
The personal situation I referred to involved cataract surgery experienced by my ex-wife several years ago. This very popular and everyday operation performed nearly 25 million times yearly around the world virtually never flounders. And yet, in her case, the surgeon failed to ensure the equipment was in good operating condition. As a result, she is now blind in one eye because of this easily avoided oversight. When it happened, I – being a typical “Men are from Mars” kinda guy – went into take-no-prisoners mode. I wanted revenge. I needed to vent my spleen. I had to lash out and be heard! “Sue the bastard!” friends invoked. And yup, I was more than ready to hop on that hostile train... that is until I had the presence of mind to realize that anger would serve little purpose at that particular point. What my wife sorely needed was my compassion for her. As the victim, she was suffering big time and full of apprehension for the future. My ranting would do nothing to calm her down. There’d be time for that later. There always is.
Now, where I got the presence of mind from I’ll never know, but I managed to stop and see the light, put aside my agitation, and start in to focus on whatever positives we could find in this situation. Indeed, we would both be called on to exert confidence and conviction in the 15 operations that were to follow over the next couple of years and which attempted – and sadly failed – to redress the situation.
Eventually, when the struggles to overcome the surgical mistake showed no success and it became clear she would be blind in one eye for the rest of her life, there was time to see about the antagonism this unhappy occurrence had wrought. (I won’t go into the frustration one experiences trying to hold the medical practice liable for the infraction perpetrated here! That’s for another time.)
But here’s the thing: I walked away from all of this with two revelations. The first is to acknowledge and understand the role of the support person in a situation like this. You are crucial to the outcome, and as a result, to this day, I always enquire about and encourage the care-giver after ensuring the patient is out of the woods. You are essential to however successful the future can be. Sometimes this is so easily overlooked.
The second insight is to focus on being helpful, encouraging and positive in the midst of disaster. The last thing the hapless patient and other family members need is to be surrounded by outpourings of grief and exasperation and desperation. They need your support, your leadership, your optimism. Be inspiring, not miserable.
So there you go Doug. You’ve got this! You’re the patriarch and everyone needs your positive influence.
Doug told me this note meant a huge amount to him, so I'm pleased. And I'm not re-creating it here for attaboys: I'm doing it in the hope that anyone experiencing this kind of grief can see "the forest for the trees" and carry on in the best, most productive and proactive way.