By Tracy Churchill
A story about how a small gesture can have a big impact
Once upon a night shift, I went into the ED tea room.
It was 2am and a doctor was sitting hunched over on the table with his head in his hands. He didn’t look up when I entered the room. His clothes were wrinkled, his hair was tousled and the atmosphere around him was one of despair. It looked like he was having a rough day. I said ‘I’m making a cup of tea. Do you want one?’. He jumped and looked startled even though I had not entered the room quietly.
‘Oh… yeah… I’ll make it’. Bleary eyed and with dark circles under his eyes, he stood up.
‘No, I’m making one anyway. Sit down. I’ll bring it over.’
‘I’ll make it and bring it to you’. He looked very confused. And also suspicious, as if I was playing a cruel trick.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. Absolutely. I’m making one for myself and besides, this is hospital grade tea in a polystyrene cup. It is no trouble and won’t take a minute’.
He sat down slowly. I made the tea (you know what I am talking about – no ritual here – just the cheap tea bag and homebrand milk).
I walked the tea over and handed it over to him. He accepted the cup with two hands. I will never forget his expression: it was magical. He was looking at the tea with a sense of wonder as if it was a precious and rare elixir in a diamond carved chalice. He sat up straight. Noticing the warmth of the cup on the cold night, he slowly and deliberately had a sip. He looked a million times lighter.
Just looking at the change in him made me feel as though I had done something important with my day. I sat down and the tea created a nice space for us to talk about our shifts. I never realised how much stress doctors face, not only at work but also in the rest of their lives – trying to balance relationships, further study and working full time. As nurses we have the same issues, and – this is my opinion – I feel as a group we band together and can take the opportunity to share our concerns and support each other more often. On that night, we spoke for only about ten minutes, but I learnt a lot in that time. All of the pressure seemed to be compounded by the isolation and loneliness that can come with long shifts, crazy unsocial hours and a lack of ability to arrange time with family and friends.
At this particular time on this particular nightshift, it was so lovely to just spend time connecting. In ED we have such big teams, and many rotational staff – sometimes we don’t really know the people we work with. When we get a minute to look around the department, we can see so many people – patients, nurses, doctors, radiology staff, wardies, cleaners… Despite all the crowd and all we do in our work, we can still feel inconsequential on rough days. Leaving the tea room, I left behind a relaxed and friendly looking doctor sitting in there (enjoying the last of a bulk purchased tea). I hope that our time connecting helped him, because it certainly helped me.
Sometimes small gestures can have big impact. On this shift , I was reminded that we all have rough days and that sometimes even a cheap teabag in a polystyrene cup can make all the difference. It happened to be a doctor on this shift, but it could be any of us, at any time. I myself have been the recipient of such a cup, and that act of kindness – from a Registrar – made a huge difference in me.
Making a difference doesn’t even have to involve a specific gesture. Even the way we speak to people can influence whether they will confide in us or not. As clinicians we know that this is important.
The way we respond to people can influence whether they feel safe approaching us (and other staff) or not. As leaders this is important.
The way we behave and the way we touch people transmits not only our non-physical cues, but something more than cannot be captured by words on paper. We work in healthcare, but we work with people. It is easy to underestimate how a word or a reassuring pat on the back or a wink can shift the weight of an entire day. But it can. And we all have the ability and the power to impact others.
Once upon a nightshift, I learnt a lesson about kindness, about the beauty of connection, and about how small things can make a huge difference.