It was one of those days in the clinic when I had back-to-back appointments scheduled all day and extra people were showing up to be seen too. Mr. R arrived for his appointment on time. Checked in. Then immediately went to the bathroom. He was in the bathroom for over thirty minutes. I saw two other patients who arrived early in order to attempt to stay on schedule. I was irritated when Mr. R returned and expected to be seen. As if he had not disappeared for thirty minutes.
He quietly said “hello” when I called him back to the exam room. He was soft spoken and made no comments about it being almost forty minutes after his scheduled appointment. I seethed, my schedule, already tight and frayed was now unraveling. So was my patience. He shuffled into the exam room wearing white compression socks to his knees and dark black diabetic shoes. He wore a blue button up shirt that was off by one button and khaki shorts.
I was fully prepared to deliver a short but stern lecture about arriving on time and being seen on time. The clinic is too busy to operate otherwise. I was ready to ask him to arrive thirty minutes early so he would have time to check in and take care of business. Then he would still be on time. Anger was driving me forward.
As we arrived in the exam room, Mr. R asked me for a pair of gloves. “Could you spare a pair of gloves for me?” he softly asked.
My irritation ratcheted up. Deep breath. I explained crisply, “unfortunately the clinic cannot hand out gloves. We are giving out one mask per person but not gloves. You can buy gloves at a pharmacy or grocery store perhaps.”
He nodded and smiled. Despite my denial he said, “thank you.” I continued to seethe internally. How dare this man arrive for this appointment then waste all this time and still expect to be seen and now ask for gloves? Oh, the nerve.
I took a deep breath. In that moment I decided to focus on why he was in the clinic and not my frustrations with him being late or asking for gloves. I would get to that at the end. Save it. Healthcare business first. My irritation and righteous lecture second.
We started the exam and it was within minutes that I smelled it. Pungent and strong, like a portable toilet baking in the sun on a hot summers day. In an instant I fully understood why he was forty minutes late. Why he had asked for gloves.
And I felt sad. I felt like I had failed. My irritation and frustration with Mr. R being late had clouded my ability to see him and hear him. To see what he needed. Even though it smelled awful, I am so grateful I could smell him. In the short time I had with Mr. R in the exam room he reminded me of the importance of dignity and humility.
He did not bring up the smell. As we completed our visit I asked him to hold up his hand and gauged his hand size against mine. I gave him a pair of gloves.
I am forever grateful to the invisible force that nudged me towards doing my work and not lecturing this man on being late. He had shown up on time and than life had taken an unexpected turn for him. He still managed to return for the scheduled appointment, albeit late. I am not sure, were I in his place, if I would have returned or simply gone home. Dignity.
He asked for gloves and did not argue with me when I explained the clinic could not hand them out. I am not sure I would have accepted that answer had I been in his seat. Humility.
I feel guilt for having given this man a pair of gloves, though I also believe it was the right thing to do. Humanity. Dignity.
I feel guilt as well for not being able to do more. I offered to help him get cleaned up. He quietly deferred and thanked me for the gloves. We discussed follow up with his primary care doctor in case this was an ongoing problem. He nodded and shuffled out of the room. Dignity. Humility.
And when I think back to how the visit started and how much I wanted to blast him with my self-righteous anger about being on time and keeping to schedule I feel small. I know I can do better. Humility.
Thank you, Mr. R, for reminding me to pause and listen. See and hear people (and maybe even smell them) before I jump to conclusions and start blasting and reacting.