Are Superhero Stickers the Key to Being a Good Doctor? No...But They Help

Sean has an average of three appointments every week, making us self-declared connoisseurs of medical clinics. Of all the facilities we visit, Oral Surgery receives the lowest ranking in our books.

The department is in a building far from any convenient parking, a distance so great that Sean typically requires a wheelchair. The waiting room feels chaotic, chairs full of people with mouths full of pain. The clinic itself feels like it was erased from the list when the rest of the hospital was updated decades ago and has since been forgotten. The hallways, exam rooms, and equipment seem frighteningly outdated.

How was it then, that in this, our least favorite medical facility, we recently experienced our most supportive appointment? Here’s what happened:

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Sean was subdued, reclining in the dental chair made long ago of navy blue plastic, waiting for the inevitable visit from a med student, for whom the size, severity, and complexity of his medical chart would likely be beyond comprehension.

Instead, at the window of the door appeared the Chief Resident who had been one of the first people we met in this clinic months ago. She had been gone for the last twelve weeks on a different rotation, and we were delighted to see her again.

She walked in with a grin, saying how happy she had been to see Sean’s name on the schedule. She spoke to all he had been through since she had last seen him, a sign that she had read his (enormous) chart in preparation for this appointment and an act that saved us from the exhausting rehashing we are typically asked to give. She pointed at her surgical cap, decorated with tabby cats in space suits, and said, “I wore this today knowing I’d see you. You have a tabby cat at home, don’t you?”

Why yes, yes we do!

Sean pulled out his wallet and showed her that he carries with him a sticker she’d given him the first time they’d met.

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On that day, she was scheduled to take a biopsy of his gums without the benefit of sedation. Even people who have gone through all that Sean has have their limits, and he was not feeling great about what was about to happen. She walked him through the procedure with a calm reassurance and then, as he recovered, she brought him this sticker. She said that adults deserve encouragement too, and that in her book he was the definition of a Hero Patient.

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The last time we’d seen her, Sean was in the midst of cancer treatment and was in pretty rough shape. That day, as she said goodbye, she reached into the pocket of her scrubs, pulled out this sticker and said, “When I come back in a few months I fully expect to see you back in action. You’re going to get through this. I know it.” That sticker has been displayed on our dresser ever since.

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Now, three months post-treatment, she smiled as she saw the sticker in his wallet. She reached into her pocket once again and said, “Well, I’m glad you liked it because I brought you another one today to add to your collection. You’ve been through a lot since I saw you last, so I thought this was fitting for you.”

At that moment, the Attending Oral Surgeon entered the room, equally delighted to see us, though for her it had only been a few weeks.

“Allison,” she said to me, “ I’ve been thinking of you and how much you do as a caregiver. I know it’s not the same, but my dog was hit by a car and now requires lots of medical care at home. As I was up with him the other night I thought of you, of how long you’ve been a caregiver, and how hard that must be. I have so much respect for all you do.”

(Excuse me for a moment while I sob into my t-shirt.)

We mentioned how excited we were to have the Chief Resident back and that we were grateful to have somehow skipped the visit from the med student. The Attending said, “Oh, I know how much time you guys spend at appointments each week. I decided to spare you from that to make your day a little easier and to get you out of here and back to your lives a little faster.”

After a thorough exam in which we were part of the decision-making process and next steps were planned and agreed upon together, the two women sent us on our way. The Chief Resident’s parting words were, “I know you have surgery later this week. I will be thinking of you and praying that all goes well.”

Sean and I walked out of that antiquated exam room, through the chaotic waiting area and into the elevators feeling nothing short of buoyant. “Someone should have been filming that appointment,” he said.

When he and I reflected upon what had made that encounter so powerful, we decided it was a number of things:

  1. At the initial appointment, the Chief Resident saw, heard, and noticed Sean’s nerves.

  2. She then met that need by showing him encouragement in the form of calm reassurance and a well-chosen sticker.

  3. She saw, heard, and noticed that this was effective for him.

  4. At future appointments, she remembered this and used this tactic again, making Sean feel seen, heard, and noticed once more.

  5. She spent time preparing for the appointment by reading the chart, but also by thinking about what she knows about us that isn’t in the data base. Using this information, she chose the cap and sticker with us in mind.

  6. The Attending acknowledged my role as a caregiver and affirmed me for the hard work I do.

  7. She related it to her life, but was careful to not say that caring for my husband was the same as caring for her dog.

  8. The Attending adjusted protocol to meet our needs by letting us skip the med student portion of the visit.

  9. The Chief Resident acknowledged that there is more going on medically with Sean than just the part of the body that is in her jurisdiction. She did this by talking about his cancer treatment and his upcoming surgery.

  10. They both, in multiple ways, treated us with respect, seeing us as humans who are much more than just names on the schedule, who have needs and lives and interests that go well beyond the oral cavity.

I fully recognize that Sean is a special case and that due to his charm, strength, humor, incredible story and frequency of visits he tends to become a staff favorite everywhere he goes.

And.

The strategies these two women used that day are universal and can teach us how to create meaningful connections not just in medical appointments but in life. The key is not to go handing out superhero stickers to every person you meet. But to see, hear, and notice the needs of those you encounter and when you can, to meet them. When you see that something resonates and supports, remember it, and use it again, keeping in mind that it may not always be effective. Be prepared. Take the extra time to read the chart or scour your brain for things they may have mentioned. Acknowledge and affirm people for the hard and amazing things they do every day. Be careful not to minimize other people’s struggles by making a comparison to your own life. When possible, adjust to meet the needs of others, putting people before protocols. See others as whole beings, beyond just the piece of them that relates to the role or moment you are in. Look for what’s hiding in the negative space. In short, treat people with respect, seeing them as complex multi-faceted humans who long to be seen, heard, noticed, remembered, and acknowledged.

I have to say, I am very much looking forward to our next visit to the Oral Surgery clinic.

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