I was recently visiting a patient who has lost his ability to speak clearly, and although he says many words, they are random, and did not make sense to me. In between the random words he says, he speaks many of them in different languages, which adds to the difficulty of figuring out what it is he is trying so desperately to say. I could see in his eyes his plea for me to hear and understand him. I imagine many people have just walked away.
I sat down on his bed next to him, and I took his hand in mine and I stared deep into his eyes as he tried to communicate with me, as if maybe that would help me understand. I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t going to try, especially since I could tell how hard he was working to speak to me. I got a little closer and I looked right into his eyes and I said, “I hear you”. He looked at me, and clear as day, he said back to me, “you hear me?” I said, “yes, I hear you”, and he said, “thank you”.
I sat there for about thirty minutes as he rambled on. I had no idea what he was trying to say, but when he smiled, I smiled and when he laughed, I laughed. He just needed someone to hear him, to acknowledge him and perhaps to make him feel a little less alone.
I have thought a lot about that day; his face, his eyes that spoke to me, and what it must feel like to be trapped inside your own head with a voice that cannot be heard. In general I think people want to be seen and heard, and that in itself can be really difficult in a world where everyone is in such a hurry and so distracted by their own stuff, they don’t realize how dismissive it might feel to someone who is trying to get your attention without success.
The majority of patients I see are at the end of their life, they cannot verbalize their needs, they cannot tell you when their mouth is dry, or their body aches, or they wish someone could just pull the covers up over their shoulders because they are cold. Some never open their eyes, some just stare at me hoping I might be able to read their minds and hear them, many just want to be seen.
As a hospice nurse, I have put down the thermometer, the blood pressure cuff, and all the tools we are taught to use in nursing school to determine vital signs. Those don’t always work at the end of life; a blood pressure cuff won’t tell you that they are wet or dirty, or that there is a hair tickling the tip of their nose and it is driving them insane. I was taught by the most amazing doctor, to assess with my eyes, my hands, and my heart. I was taught to see that person lying in the bed, to look into their eyes, to touch their skin, to hold their hand, to feel what they might feel so that I can somehow bring them relief that might be as simple as adjusting the covers or putting a drop of water on their tongue. I was blessed to have that training; it has made me a more attentive and present nurse.
If we took the time to truly hear what someone has to say, even without their words, imagine the difference we could make in their lives, and the comfort we would be able to provide them. I don’t just mean a person who is dying, I mean humans in general. What if we each slowed down just a few minutes and looked into someone’s eyes when they were talking, and let them know we hear them? What if we looked at someone, not beyond them, but truly at them, and let them know we see them… what a difference we might be able to make.