I’ve been thinking a lot about stories. The stories we tell and the stories others tell. And how when two different people tell a story about the same thing, the two stories told are never quite the same.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been reading through my hospital records.
When you’re a patient in the hospital, your chart is this big secret. I can think of a lot of reasons for this and if I worked in a hospital I wouldn’t want my patients reading their charts, either. But after the fact, after discharge, you can request a copy of that big secret. Which is what I recently needed to do. Really I just needed to know one thing from one admission, but curiosity got the better of me and I requested them all. They say that curiosity killed the cat…I always say that if I were a cat I’d be long dead for this reason.
That said, as curious as I was to read through everything, I was also a little apprehensive.
The reason reading through my hospital records has me thinking about stories is because that’s exactly what my records are. A story. A story about me. But not told by me…did I really want to read my story from someone else’s point of view? And not just a story told by someone else, but a story about some of the hardest times in my life…did I really want to read through and re-live all of that?
Like I said, I was a little apprehensive. I mean, my apprehension to curiosity ratio was probably one to ten, so not nearly apprehensive enough to stop me, but a little apprehensive still. I told you, it’s a really good thing I’m not a cat!
It turns out I needn’t have been apprehensive.
For one, reading through everything definitely did resurface a lot of memories, but not in a distressing way. In a matter of fact way. What happened, happened. There are some bad memories, but every bad memory is just that, a memory. I lived through it and now it’s the past. Plus there are positive memories, too.
And secondly, well, my chart is really boring. And I mean that in the best way possible. I find it all interesting, of course, but it’s really not very exciting. It’s all just very clinical and objective, as a chart is meant to be.
To me, though, as the person who lived through it, it feels incomplete. My chart is a clinical story as told by the clinicians. And so it’s biased.
One example…of many…is the doctor who made it clear to both me and my GI that she didn’t believe my issues were legitimate and that his treatment plan was unnecessary. I was a bit nervous to find out what she wrote in my chart, but literally all she entered was an order for a CT scan. And so my chart is incomplete. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell my story. It doesn’t talk about all the times I was made to feel judged, belittled or less than.
The things that stand out the most in my memory can’t be found in my chart. But there’s another side to this.
Like the year I was in the hospital for Thanksgiving. My doctor was on call that weekend and so he popped in on his way out to say hi and then ended up staying and talking with me for close to 45 minutes. Read my records and you won’t find any mention of that, either, because he wasn’t there out of obligation, but rather out of kindness. As I said, my chart is incomplete, because it also doesn’t talk about all the times that I was treated in a way that assured me I was a person first and medical problem second.
So it goes both ways.
And even though the records feel incomplete to me, I know that medically they say what they need to say. What this has really made me realize is just how much the experience of being in the hospital has nothing to do with what gets charted.
When I’m in the hospital I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but I do know how I’m made to feel. It’s the words, actions, and body language of people who work in the hospital that have the most impact. I won’t remember what my vitals were, but I will remember if it seemed like the person taking them would rather be anywhere else. I will remember if I didn’t feel comfortable ringing my call bell for fear of being a colossal nuisance. I won’t remember the exact answers to the questions I ask, but I will remember if I felt it was okay to ask them. My experience is defined by my interactions, not by what’s written in my chart.
Recognizing this, I do realize how much pressure this puts on doctors, nurses, and everyone else involved in patient care. I realize that just like patients, they’re people with thoughts and feelings and good days and bad days, and days where they really would rather be anywhere else than taking a patient’s vitals. I also realize that as a sick and scared patient, my feelings of vulnerability lead me to read more into what they say, what they do, and how they do it, and that sometimes this makes me misjudge. I understand now that even when I’m certain someone doesn’t like me, they’re probably not writing all sorts of horrible things in my chart. And even if they want to, they probably don’t have the time!
So as incomplete as my records feel to me, I’m really glad I decided to request them. I learned a lot. I have a better understanding now of how things work on the other side of the equation and I feel at peace with everything.
At the end of the day, it’s all just a story. And a fairly boring one at that. A story about me but not told by me. A story that ends with me walking out the doors of the hospital.
There’s also a story about me, told by me. And it’s here. I’m telling it as it happens. And it doesn’t have an ending.
And so, friends…
…to be continued.