San Diego—In a fitting end to yet another excellent Health Forum-AHA Leadership Summit, journalist Lee Woodruff delivered a passionate plea to hospital officials: give families hope.
Woodruff, a freelance writer, author and contributing editor to Good Morning America, gave the closing address at the Summit. She recounted in great detail the amazing journey her family endured after her husband, ABC newsman Bob Woodruff, was critically injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. She mixed her keynote with humor and poignant stories about Bob's tremendous recovery from the severe brain injury that kept him in a coma for 36 days.
His story has been well documented by newspapers, nightly news, NPR, WebMD and even Oprah. For as dramatic as the retelling of the story—the bombing, the surgery, the recovery—was, Woodruff's key message about how to treat the patient's family left the biggest impression on those of us in the crowd. At least, that's what I gleaned from the group of five people I had lunch with immediately following the speech.
"You are seeing families at their most vulnerable times," she said. It's imperative that hospital staff—everyone from the clinician to the admitting clerk—give that family hope. Now, Woodruff is not so naïve as to suggest that doctors fudge the truth or sugar coat a diagnosis. What she is saying is that people in the hospital have to show compassion and empathy; that they need to connect with the family on a human level. She illustrated the point with the following story: She was preparing to take one of her young daughters in to see Bob. "You don't have to do this," she recalls saying. "Yes, I want to see Dad," the daughter said. The daughter talked to her comatose Dad and then kissed him on the check. Lee Woodruff saw a tear trickle down her husband's cheek. She called in a nurse who told Woodruff that she sees this a lot after a child pays a visit; that perhaps there's some deep connection with the parent, or something that just can't be explained. That gave Woodruff something to cling too.
It's that kind of story, that kind of human touch that gives families hope, she said. Contrast that with the physician who told her, "Mrs. Woodruff, I don't think you understand, your husband is at the knife's edge," after Bob had developed sepsis. Or the neurosurgeon who contacted Woodruff from Iraq after the bombing and started by hurling medical terms at her. "I just wanted to know, 'Is he alive?'"
She recalled the people and the moments in the hospital that touched her the most: The nurse who would sit with her for an extra minute or two, the simple soft touch on her hand or back, the person who would ask how she was doing, and the physical therapy coordinator who gave her a 10 minute shoulder message and then leant a shoulder to cry on.
Her message really resonated with me. We have a family member who on Monday started a very aggressive cancer treatment. This comes just a year after he lost his wife to cancer. So, you can imagine the body blow everyone felt when the diagnosis came in just a few short weeks ago. We fully understand the road that lies ahead, and it isn't pretty, but we need the hospital staff to help us stay in what Woodruff called "the zone," in a world of hope.