Or, seeking compassion in healthcare.

An abstract white light with blue, orange and yellow rays.

Mr Siemens, did you have to make this MRI machine so loud? There’s a weird build-up of anxiety inside a person inside a tube like this. Especially having been led here in a strange, perfunctory manner by the staff member, who efficiently rolls me in without pause for the said anxiety.

Does it not cross her mind that one might be feeling vulnerable at such a time?

I’m wearing headphones. The voice that tells me to breathe in is female and British. This would usually calm me but she sounds so mechanical. “Breathe out and stop,” she says. After a couple of rounds, I work out that it’s 11 loud thumps until I can breathe in again, my lungs sometimes not making it all the way to 11, surreptitiously sneaking in air again, my tummy moving slightly as I let the air slip in.

The perfunctory person pulls me out and adjusts some straps that trap me here. “Be very still,” she says, and my internal rebel wiggles her toes. Then the machine thumps again and I do my best to breathe on cue.

There’s a pang in my heart. I’m so grateful that we have all this first-world health care, but I hate the way that, when we use said healthcare, we’re reduced to something other than the unique individuals we really are – people with lives and souls and personalities. As if I've left all of that in the basement car park with my hopes and dreams.

I’m reminded of #hellomynameis, a campaign started by Dr Kate Granger in the UK. Sadly, Dr Granger found herself seeing care from the other side, from the perspective of a terminally ill cancer patient, being treated by people who never introduced themselves. So she and her husband Chris did something about it, creating a massively successful campaign that encourages healthcare workers to introduce themselves.

Here’s what she said: “I firmly believe it is not just about common courtesy, but it runs much deeper. Introductions are about making a human connection between one human being who is suffering and vulnerable, and another human being who wishes to help.”

I think that’s all I’m asking for, here today, an acknowledgment that I might be human, I might be afraid – of the process, of the results – and that another human can see that in me.

Thump thump thump.

The negative thoughts spiral. Fears and worries swirl around. There’s a war in Ukraine. Brisbane is flooding – again. People are suffering. The end becomes nigh.

Thump again.

I close my eyes. I breathe deeply even though it makes my tummy move up and down and I’m supposed to lie here, very very still.

In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

So I decide to calm my thinking because I know I can do it and, let’s face it, if Viktor Frankl could do it during the Holocaust, surely I can do it here in this first-world health care setting, where, soon, with all gratitude and relief, I will go home and sink back into the safety of my peace and freedom.

Breathe breathe breathe. Breathe again.

I kick all those years of meditation into gear and I focus. I clearly feel myself walking through the anxiety into a wide, white space. It fascinates me. I feel safe and I stay there, calm. I just breathe and breathe and breathe.

It’s over. They roll me out and I lie there quietly staring at the ceiling tiles for several peaceful moments, holding onto the knowledge that I did it, I mentally walked through the tangled forest of anxiety into that wide open space, a good space inside of me and simultaneously outside of me where breath and hope mingled to make me free.

I don’t need the perfunctory person to be nice anymore. I’m stronger now, my confidence and rationality have returned. I smile at her through the mask, my eyes crinkling. I return to my usual self, vulnerability erased, my need for compassion relieved.

It’s all gonna be ok.

I know she doesn’t have the time or the capacity to be compassionate. We’re two years into a global pandemic and there is a backlog of people in the waiting area for MRIs. And this is what the Siemens marketing spiel says about its wonderful MRI machine: “In the face of rising patient volumes and falling reimbursements, there is a strong need for healthcare providers to boost their productivity in MRI.”

I hope my gratitude shines through. I’m grateful to be here, in a country that is safe even if by sheer distance, where health care is available and somewhat affordable. But I think I’ve had more meaningful conversations at the checkout at Woolworths than I’ve had in this hospital today, and I wonder what sort of culture creates that? Is it one of overwork, rising patient volumes, sheer emotional exhaustion?

Of course it is.

How can I expect someone to recognise my humanness when they’re feeling dead on their feet?

And is this a purely selfish demand that I make?

I’ve since learned that Monash University offers a short course in Compassion for healthcare workers. The course description says: “Compassion is known to benefit the patient but research now shows that compassion is a positive state of mind, increasing the wellbeing of the giver and protecting against burnout.”

The course sounds wonderful, exploring topics including strengthening the perception of common humanity to help cultivate compassion for anyone. That really does sound like my cup of tea.

So, dear perfunctory person, if there’s ever a next time, I want our common humanity to unite us. I’ll do everything I can to put my anxiety aside and aim to connect with warmth and compassion for you. Thank you for your service, for working in a hospital, so efficient, productive, noisy and sterile, that place of high patient turnover, bad news, good news, broken hearts, human joy and human misery. Thank you for pushing on through.

Much love, Lyndall

Ps. I’m doing fine by the way, the results were good, it really is going to be ok 😊