How To Be Truly Present For A Patient

By: Ariel Fixler

It seems easy to say you will be present for a patient while visiting, but there is a huge difference in showing your presence AND being present.

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I had a long talk with a good friend of mine of how people need to unplug while visiting and focus. When I say focus I mean truly focus when a patient is talking. There are emotions and feelings behind ever word, stutter and pause. I used to have a charging station in the hospital and at home so people could go and re-charge and yet unplug at the same time.

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When I had visits or conversations with people whom I felt were constantly in distraction mode, I got so sad and wanted the visit over just as it started. They might be checking their phone, social media or anything else. They were simply distracted. I would tell them outright and most of the time it went over well. Every once in a while, someone became defensive or found my comment offensive, but they promised they would focus and unplug on the next visit and usually they did just that.

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There was one time I had a heart to heart with a good friend. I told her I was going through a lot and the next visit or even our next communication or text and exchange that I really wanted to talk about issues that had been bothering me personally. We didn’t usually “go there”. I wanted to really talk about what has been physically debilitating me. She agreed she would be more present and listen. During the first 10 minutes or so in the next visit, we had “real talk” but I felt she minimized my feelings or the people or situations that caused them. She was nonchalant about them, responding as though they were non-consequential. For just a minute, I thought she was “getting it” then it quickly dissipated and she returned to her home base of Distraction City. She asked if I was finished with the tough stuff. Was I? Would I ever be? Did their have to be a limit? She was constantly checking her email blasts and CC’s from her company and the next email thread, responding to texts and Snapchats and obsessing over celebrities she covered for her job, her social media posts and replies. I didn’t get it. Was visiting me that painful? Or was she that distracted in every day life encounters? I was right in front of her painstakingly seeking her awareness.

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We couldn’t even watch a TV show together in peace. She was obsessed with live tweeting and tagging the event and the cast of the show. Why was she so detached from reality and intimacy? Was it a way to cope with seeing the decline in my features and in my positivity? I was frustrated but truly more disheartened than anything. I wondered if she could she just live in the moment and enjoy the space we shared. I realized at that moment, this person was a limited friend.

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What is a limited friend? A friend who feels more comfortable on the periphery. A person who is unable to be present and responsive to anything that feels real or timely to you. They constantly dodge the real issues, are good with one-word answers and talk about anything else but your struggle. When they need you they have no problem reaching out. Their visits are filled with anything else so as not to “have to deal with” why they are really there.

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So this friend served her purpose in my life as a comic distraction. She always “fit me in” between her busy life . This friend made sure I knew how busy and hyper scheduled she was in between meeting a friend for dinner, dates, drinks, work events, etc. She would half read my longer emails, texts and then blame it on something else going on that needed her attention or being high on weed. She would rush in and rush out of a visit, what patients call a “drive by.” Staying just long enough to say they visited, but never long enough to delve into anything real OR deep.  They usually end the visit just as you open up, leaving you feeling more vulnerable than before they came. If this friend’s visit coincided with other visitors, you could see her debate whether to quickly leave or bring the spotlight back to her. They always need a distraction while visiting. They reported on news for a living but were obsessed with talking about celebrities. I never met anyone who was so obsessed with the celebrity subjects they covered (not even good ole Perez Hilton). They shouted that obsession from the social media rooftops.

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For some people who were limited it meant partaking in my medical marijuana, arranging a reunion or group visit and one went as far to leave booze in my apt so she could imbibe on every visit to relax after work. Yea leaving booze at the apartment of someone in liver failure, who has doctors and nurses seeing the bottles and my efforts to explain them was a mess. I really wish I was kidding.

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It’s hard when you realize you have a friend who has become so limited especially, when it’s someone whose company and banter you’ve enjoyed. Sadly, I realized they are more present online than offline in the real world. They are so disengaged and disconnected from the present tense and reality.

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Regarding the social in social media. Here is another example.

I tried to ask another good friend to listen and they couldn’t give into that request. The litany of excuses made me feel awful for expressing anything other than gratitude for the little she could give. I knew her struggle with time management could be remedied with a shift in focus and attention. I thought that if people spent half the time listening and stepping back to be truly present to friends that they did being “present” on social media then their issue would be addressed. She was someone who liked and celebrated everything and everyone on a social platform. Like clockwork wishing everyone happy wishes on their birthdays and milestones. Liking every status, every photo of a child and parent, wedding, engagement, celebration and milestone or even an inane status that said nothing at all (figuratively). A very sweet way to interact publicly, but what about your friends and family who need to be more private? Your friends who need a private dialogue and support.

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No one is going to remember if you like every status or photo, reply to a thread, a tag, a post, a comment, social or political commentary on a pressing news topic or celebrity. No one is going to remember if you wished everyone you ever came in contact (and no longer have contact with) happy birthday online. It’s not a social competition of the ages. Minutes spent constantly refreshing your feed, “liking”, commenting and interacting online can be used to be present for others in their time of need. It is an easy fix to capture time and to be present, yet most people don’t, but complain about having no time in the day. Do it one day, add up the minutes you spend on social media over a week that can be repurposed for quality time.

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I spent the last 6 months of my life on a social media detox of sorts. I wasn’t active on Facebook and was in and out on Instagram. I had no presence online. Every precious moment, birth, engagements, birthdays were all commemorated in a non-social forum. I sent intimate notes, gifts and precious photos and shared tender thoughts and memories in a private setting or in private notes. It was my way to say thank you and create a space for forgiveness and gratitude for all they do and have done. I could say more than a few words and be a really sincere person. Greetings in an online forum are all about ceremony and celebrating those in a public forum. So people can “see” your outreach and assess your relationship based on that exchange accordingly. I got more responses from the notes, gifts and sentiments I sent in a private and intimate manner than I ever did on “social media” public.

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My private, social presence made me feel closer to people than I had been in years. It gave me a new sense of self and more importantly a sense of purpose at a time I was losing my footing. I was more connected, even though I am so gravely disconnected to any forms of normalcy. It invigorated my spirit to have a true connection with people in a way that didn’t have to be seen by thousands and could be treasured by that ONE person.

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I think it’s most important to be present, whether someone is sick or just trying living their best life. To really take in moments, reflect on memories, see the beauty in the small and sacred. Drink them in, those moments won’t last forever. You don’t want to look back remembering the moments you “liked”, when you could have moments you “LOVED”.

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Articles and resources on being the right kind of support:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/style/how-to-be-a-friend-in-deed.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad
http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-12623/why-being-present-is-so-difficult-and-what-you-can-do-about-it.html