My grandmother, Ba, came to America when I was twelve years old. She had just recently lost the ability to move her legs from the waist down. This quickly became a source of frustration for someone who had spent her entire life as a fiercely independent businesswoman. Striving to provide her with the best care, my father called in a home health aid to help her with her daily routine. Because she only spoke Gujarati, an Indo-Aryan language native to Western India, it was nearly impossible for her to communicate her needs to her caretakers. Time and again, my father would receive a dreaded phone call at work: that Ba had fallen while bathing, or while transferring from her bed into her wheelchair.
My father then tried to find alternative help. He called in various trained clinicians, hoping for better care. However, the daily calls to his work never stopped. The traditional health system that my father so revered was unable to find a solution to Ba’s condition. Eventually, my father reached out to Lori*, an old family friend, to help out our grandmother. She had no clinical training; however, she had immense physical strength, so at the very least, we knew she would be able to either catch Ba before she fell, or help her recover after an accident had occurred.
Within a week of Lori’s arrival, she and Ba had developed their own form of communication composed of miming movements, enthusiastic facial expressions, and laughter. Ba picked up a few English phrases that Lori patiently explained to her while braiding her hair. Soon enough, Lori became well-versed in traditional Indian cooking, assisting Ba who used to be an avid chef. Observing the two of them together was purely magical- even though they did not speak the same “traditional” language, they giggled for hours like two elementary school girls whispering secrets to each other on the playground. Lori invested countless hours helping Ba move her toes, and then her feet, and eventually, Ba regained the ability to walk. Best of all, the phone calls about Ba’s falls had stopped. Ba did not suffer a single accident after Lori had started to help her. She was finally safe in the hands of Lori. And it didn’t even require an advanced health professional.
As students of medicine, we are constantly learning: from understanding how to create a robust differential diagnosis, to figuring out ways to chart a patient’s progress through an electronic health record. We drink thousands of new words from a firehose every day, hoping to eventually master the mesmerizing and powerful medical language. With this constant influx of new information, it is easy to forget perhaps the most important facet of our patients’ care: a meaningful relationship founded upon trust. Regardless of the hours spent memorizing biochemistry textbooks, if we as health care professionals cannot find a way to communicate with our patients, we will fail to provide our patients with high quality care.
Ba and Lori’s relationship is just one of example that highlights the importance of patience and persistence when opening up lines of communication with patients. In just a couple days at the Telluride conference, many of my conversations with my peers and faculty members have been centered around how to be a more effective communicator to deliver truly patient-centered care. I am grateful to be surrounded by people from such diverse backgrounds who are all here for a common good: to ensure the safety of our patients, and to ultimately, better their care.
*Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality of the individual.