The Tale of Two Appointments
Radiologic care needs to be provided in a manner that incorporates the needs, wants, and values of the patient.
On Dec. 20, 2017, I had two separate diagnostic imaging appointments: one was for an ultrasound and the other was for a follow-up mammogram. I had finished treatment for breast cancer six months before. Even though both appointments involved my breasts, the two experiences could not have been more different.
I was the first appointment of the day, and the waiting room was quiet. A gentleman pushing a laundry cart called, “Hello there!” This made me smile — and also startled me a little. His “Hello there!” mattered to me, sitting alone in the hospital for my first post-cancer treatment scan.
A male technologist was selected to do my breast ultrasound. He had a warm smile and called me by name. I was greeted warmly and clearly told what I needed to do. I appreciated the option of the gown.
I changed and entered the room. The lights were dimmed and there was soft classical music playing. The environment was comforting. The procedure took about half an hour. The technologist talked to me the entire time. He told me what he was doing as he was doing it and also shared with me what he would be doing next. Providing information about what was happening and what to expect went a long way.
He said, “This might hurt. Tell me if you feel pain.” I was still wound tight as a top, clearly worried that all my cancer wasn’t gone. He said to me, “Don’t be worried.” I knew he wasn’t allowed to tell me anything about my scan. Even if it wasn’t true, he validated my concern. He lessened my anxiety with his words.
I walked out feeling fine. It wasn’t what this man did; it was how he did it. And none of it took more time than a less companssionate visit.
I had a mammogram in early December but was called back for another appointment. I asked, “Why do I have to come back?” But the person scheduling the visit didn’t know. So I spent sleepless nights leading up to my appointment thinking they had found more cancer. Not telling me why I had to come in again seemed cruel.
After dropping our son off at school, my husband met me at the appointment. We sat in a crowded waiting room until I was called into another one. On the door it said, “Women only.” I went in alone. My husband sat on a bench outside the elevator for the next hour.
I sat in the packed waiting room for what seemed like a long time. A sign informed patients that hospital gowns would no longer be offered due to efficiency and environmental impact.
Once I was called in, I had to strip from the waist up. The technologist did not introduce herself or tell me what she was going to do. I said casually, “It is too bad we don’t have gowns.” “Gowns just get in the way,” she responded.
I whimpered as she tightened the machine around my breast, which was still swollen from radiation. She did not acknowledge my pain as the clamp continued to tighten. The pain increased with each image collected. I tried to breathe but was told to hold my breath. I started to feel dizzy and clammy. I had no idea when the procedure would be done.
Suddenly, it was over. I got dressed and was told to sit in the waiting room again, but I didn’t know why. Another woman came about 20 minutes later and told me I could go. I went home and waited for my test results.
The Patient Experience
Sometimes all we can do is put our heads down and endure horrible situations. But even when pain and unpleasantness are unavoidable, I have seen that one person can make a difference and that the little things matter.
To my ultrasound technologist, I say thank you for making a difference to a scared woman with breast cancer. The little things you did mattered to me.
By Sue Robins, a writer, conference speaker, and partner in a health communications company in Vancouver, Canada. A version of this article appeared on the writer's blog www.suerobins.com.