“Well, this is awkward”

I was on a night out recently, getting my groove on and shaking my erm…boo-tay, and something happened which had never happened before.

I was recognised by a gentleman who’d recently had surgery at the hospital I work at and had spent some time under my care.

Let’s call him Bob, and I’ll tell you what happened.

So there I was, doing my impression of an electrocuted chicken. Fully believing of course that I was gods gift to the dancefloor, and Michael Flatly wouldn’t stand a chance in a one-on-one dance-off with me, when Bob spots me.

He came over and asked if I was Dave. I, slightly suspicious, said I was. Bob then made things a little clearer by explaining who he was.

Bob, it seems, was a previous patient on my ward.

So me being a compassionate and caring kind of fella, I instinctively asked him how he was doing and before I knew it he was trying to show me his scar.

Now please bear in mind I was on a night out with my girlfriend, we were in a relatively busy nightclub and I wasn’t in uniform. Also, the scar from the particular type of surgery Bob had is in quite a… sensitive area. Yet, he proceeded to show me anyway. This made me uncomfortable for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, a fully grown man exposing parts of his body he wouldn’t normally expose to another fully grown, and at the moment very hairy, man in a nightclub, while hairy mans girlfriend looks on is giving, absolutely and without question, the wrong impression. Thankfully my girlfriend is in the same line of work as me so completely understood.

Secondly, I wasn’t on duty. We’d enjoyed a nice meal and were well on the way to being happily sozzled. I was on a night out. Time away from my job. My time. Our time. The truth is I didn’t want to see his scar.

Now if any of that sounds strange to you then it’s about to get weirder. But if you’re reading this and understanding then see how you feel about this next bit.

Bob, having recognised me, announced who he was, and come within literally millimeters of exposing his backside, offered to buy me a drink. I politely refused his offer. But it only served to send my uncomfortable-o-meter into overdrive. I suddenly had an almost overwhelming urge to drain the drink I had and leave the club.

And I don’t know why.

It was a lovely thing to do. I know he was only trying to show his appreciation and express his gratitude but it didn’t feel right accepting his offer of a drink.

If you’re reading this thinking “weirdo, why not just accept the drink and enjoy it?” then you have a valid point, but let me try to explain.

The first thing I need you to understand is that I wasn’t on duty. I know I’ve said it previously but that’s the main point. We were in a nightclub I couldn’t fathom why this obviously well-rounded, intelligent, tough-looking guy felt it it necessary to almost drop his trousers in front of me. I was “off the clock” if you like. I was drinking and being my usual suave, spohisticated self. By suave I mean dancing like I had fireants down my trousers, and by sophisticated I mean having to concentrate on getting my drinks in my mouth and not down the front of my shirt, in my hair or anywhere else a drink doesn’t belong.

The second thing is… I didn’t recognise Bob. I couldn’t swear to ever having met him. I can’t recall if I accidentally made this obvious. A suspicious look when he said my name, or a blank stare when he told me how he knew me. Had I offended him? Did he believe I should remember him?

I unwillingly found myself in an unenviable position. On one hand I didn’t want to offend Bob, had I done so the situation might’ve gotten out of hand – drink is a powerful and dangerous catalyst. On the other hand I was slightly irritated with the whole sequence of events, and was doing my best to hide it. It’s a fine line I was treading and just for an instant I was wishing myself anywhere else.

I suppose I was shocked he remembered me, and was able to pick me out in a dark nightclub. Also, I’m not used to men, particularly men I don’t know, showing me parts of themselves in nightclubs. It’s a strange little idiosyncrasy I have. I don’t like it, and I don’t want it to happen.

People in my line of work come into contact with so many people it can get a bit ridiculous. We see hundreds of faces, hear hundreds of names and hear thousands of facts about peoples lives. Ninety-nine per cent of these faces, names and facts don’t stick. It’s not possible to remember everyone. There are exceptions. A particularly amusing patient, a particularly poorly patient, perhaps one with a big personality, or one who’s not particularly pleasant -yes they do exist- or a patient you care for for an extended period. In my particular field though, these exceptions are rare, but they do happen.

But, and here’s where I began to maybe understand a little better, for the patient it’s potentially (hopefully) a once in a lifetime experience. And it’s seldom enjoyable. So that patient is obviously going to remember the person who maybe made them laugh, or sat and chatted with them for a minute, or alleviated a fear or concern they had. So maybe I’d done one of the above or something similar for this patient. But I had no way of knowing because I didn’t remember him.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Bob thanking me, or offering me a drink, I did. I thought it was a really nice gesture, but where does it end?

If you work somewhere like a hospital you run the risk of coming into contact with patients outside. But I feel there still needs to be that distance. That separation. It’s a tricky gray area that’s not really covered by any policy or procedure. Everyone handles it a bit differently. Everyone has different views on it.

If you take care of someone after major sugery you’re in a singularly delicate position. You give highly personal care. You help people in ways that mortifies them. You have to be respectful, tactful and above all understanding. You should take an interest in the person. This all helps you to be more effective at your job and give the patient the best care you can.

Getting to know a patients likes and dislikes, their feelings on different things, a little bit of their history. It all helps. I’ll give you an example.

One particular patient of mine revealed that he hated the smell of latex gloves. We were discussing cars and how he used them once while working on his engine. He told me the smell on his hands afterwards made him feel queasy. This patient needed help to eat. So, knowing that he didn’t like the smell of latex I asked him how he felt about me assissting him to eat his meal without me wearing the gloves. He agreed. Meal enjoyed. No sick bowl necessary.

I only found this out because I saw he had a motoring magazine in his bag and I used that to start a conversation.

“Oh, are you a car man Mr. Smith? What’s your favourite? Do you watch motor racing?”

See? It’s easy.

But just because the guy dancing with his girlfriend took an interest in you, or the lady at the bar helped you get back on your feet doesn’t mean you’re friends for life. You needed looking after at that moment, and that person gave you the help you needed and if they were any good, asked certain questions to get the information they needed to look after you properly.

Once you leave the hospital though,  that’s it. End of relationship. Don’t be offended if they don’t remember you. If they see you and recognise you and ask how you are then great, but chances are they probably won’t. Because since he helped you that guy dancing like he’s got an itch he can’t reach has helped a hundred other patients, given a hundred other bed baths, which all mix in with the five thousand he gave before yours. That lady has most likely forgotten all about the help she gave you because she’s been busy helping others.

Wondering if I’d offended Bob played on my mind the rest of the night. My job is hard enough, anyone who does it will tell you that. Once we’re out of uniform we tend to just let go of it. If we had to remember all of the faces we’ve cared for in our careers in case we bump into one of them in a nightclub we’d be dribbling wrecks. It’s just not possible.

So if you see someone who’s looked after you, please, leave them alone unless they recognise you. Show your gratitude another way. Send a card to the ward. Take a box of chocolates in so that the staff can accept your gratitude in the context and environment most comfortable to them. Keep the staff-patient barrier. We need it, because if that barrier comes down… we’d never be off duty.

Of course, everyone thinks differently. You may think I’m being harsh, over sensitive or even a bit of a bastard, but as I’ve said on this blog in previous posts these are my personal feelings. I would never ignore a patient outside of the hospital, and I do take an interest in how patients get on after their operations, we all do, we like success stories. That doesn’t mean we want to drink with them.

So to wrap up I’ll leave you with this. Keep it in context. If you see someone who’s looked after you think twice before you approach them. If you really must approach them then maybe just smile and say hi, but let us buy our own drinks. You know how hard we work for them!

Cheers all!

Dave C. Bannerman.

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