It was Christmas in a pandemic.
With no big family gatherings or plans with friends, this past Christmas was the first time I’d ever watched It’s a Wonderful Life from start to finish without interruption. I’ve seen the film, but always in bits and pieces here and there, never all at once. I really enjoyed it and it stayed with me for several days afterwards. I kept thinking about the life of George Bailey and all he did and I wondered how many of us could relate. I mean, I’ve never pulled someone out of a hole in the ice and saved their life. How many of us have? We hear stories of people pulling others out of burning buildings or out of the way of a speeding car, but how many of us have actually done it? I started to wonder, “Are there any people alive today because of me? Have I really made a difference in the world?”
That was my thought one January evening as I was heading home and it occurred to me that maybe I could take credit for at least one person being alive.
I thought about my days in the mid-90s and early 2000s, working in organ donation and transplant, speaking with the families of patients who had just been declared brain dead and offering them the option to donate the organs. I know there were people whose lives were saved because of the generosity of those families. But would that have happened without me? The answer is probably yes. There might, and I mean might, have been a family that only agreed because of how they connected with me. Maybe.
So that would have to be good enough. Not quite as dramatic as pulling my brother out of the ice, but it would do.
Now here’s where my story gets weird.
The very next day, I got a message on Facebook from someone I wasn’t connected to, trying to send me a private message. I recognized his name immediately and accepted the friend request. It was a man I had met at a suburban Chicago hospital many years ago. His message was short, “Hi Kate – it’s been such a long time – just wanted to reach out to you and say hi – (my wife) and I will never forget you – it’s been 20 years since (my daughter) is gone – God Bless – “
I nearly fell out of my chair.
And then it hit me. Does your impact on this Earth depend on those big dramatic moments or can you make just as big an impression in those tiny acts of human kindness? The simple act of being present, of staying out of judgement, of listening, of helping someone who is going through an unbelievably difficult experience… this is how we make a difference in the world. Twenty years later and this family still remembered me. Remembered me enough to want to reach out and tell me.
This is what it means to work in healthcare. This is why I lead patient experience in healthcare systems. This is why I tell nurses, and food service workers, and housekeepers, and physicians, and registration teams, and telephone operators, and valet parkers, and security guards, and hospital presidents that how they treat people matters.
We have no idea what our patients and their families are going through when we see them. We only know they’re scared, sad, sick and coming to us for help. How can we be anything but kind to them?
After 20 years, the kindness you showed someone will still be remembered and appreciated. Those people may not reach out over Facebook but they’ll still be grateful to you. You’re their George Bailey. And you absolutely made a difference in the world.