High Stakes

When the Patient Experience Hits Home

“Is there a plausible scenario where she dies?”

This is the question I had to ask Stephanie, our nurse at Northwestern Prentice Women’s Hospital, seven hours after the birth of my second daughter and thirty seconds after my wife was wheeled into the operating room. Patient experience had gotten very real for us.

Something I talk about a lot with clients is that health care is a personal, emotional experience in our organizations and communities. Everyone who works in health care is also a health care consumer, and this should work to our empathetic advantage. As we all know, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

The delivery had been very easy (also, very easy for me to say), and for a couple hours after the birth everything was great. My wife was eating lunch while our oldest daughter met her baby sister, and I was sending out birth announcements by email, text, and social media as nurses made arrangements for us to move to the postpartum floor. All at once, the color drained from my wife’s face and she nearly passed out. The very routine became very unusual, and our care team spent the next several hours scrambling for answers. They also spent that time demonstrating a real commitment to patient engagement under very trying circumstances.

The cause of my wife’s distress was unexplained and uncontrollable bleeding, and over the next several hours probably 15 physicians, midwives, and nurses contributed their efforts, under the direction of the on-call OB/GYN. These caregivers kept us consistently updated on what they thought, what they were trying, and what the next steps might be. The OB was calm and confident, and made decisions in front of us and with our involvement. At one point, she turned to my wife and said, “This is the part in the TV show where we talk about you as if you’re not here.” We didn’t know if everything was going to be OK, but we knew there was a game plan.

Any time a different approach to her care was introduced, we had been made familiar with it an hour earlier. Each person who came into the room demonstrated the basics of patient experience that we try to instill with our clients. They introduced themselves, explained their role, and asked if we had questions, all while handling their responsibilities.

Equally significant were the moments of the patient experience that deviated from the script. We had a nurse who had been with us through the delivery and was later relieved by someone with more experience in crisis situations. She was overwhelmed by the moment and by how quickly everything had gone wrong. As she hugged my wife and they cried together, it was an escape from protocol that was also exactly what we needed in that moment, letting us know that we weren’t alone in our emotions. We needed the doctor at the controls, giving us the confidence that she was going to attack this from every angle. But we also needed someone to let us know that we were all emotionally committed to this, not by saying, “see, I care,” but by showing it.

After hours of approaches and tactics failed to stop the bleeding, my wife was taken into exploratory surgery that didn’t promise an answer, which is when I asked if the worst case scenario could be the worst case scenario. Another unanswerable question. One of our nurses pulled me aside to make sure I had eaten, another took my cell phone number so that I wouldn’t have to sit in the room and wait for news. An hour later, Stephanie left the operating room to find me and tell me that everything was indeed going to be OK. Several stitches and pints of blood later, it was.

Of course, 90 percent of the patient experience is tied to the result of treatment. Knowing that we were in a world-class hospital made us feel like everything that could be done would be done, and the success of the surgery colors every aspect of our experience at Prentice. But in the days since my wife left the hospital, we’ve found ourselves talking more about the human moments of connection with her caregivers, the moments that made us feel like we were all characters in the same story.


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