I was taking care of a patient one evening who had undergone a long and complicated recovery after having heart surgery. It had been a high-risk operation, one that came with many hurdles, but now the patient was only days away from being discharged home.
After checking in on her during evening rounds and making sure everything was OK, I was turning around to leave the room when I received an unexpected request.
“Sorry to ask you to do this, doctor, but do you mind closing the bathroom door? I normally sleep with it closed at home.”
“Of course,” I said. I slid the door closed and turned off the room lights as she shut her eyes to drift off to sleep.
The question caught me by surprise, not because it was unusual, but rather, because it was such a normal, human thing to ask. We all have similar routines and tendencies we hold on to that help us feel at ease. Sometimes, the hospital can be so busy with surgical issues that these types of questions can seem refreshingly out of place. I was happy that the patient asked me to do this.
What’s more, I considered the patient’s perspective. In the hospital where many things are outside of their control, these small acts can help them rediscover a sense of control over their lives.
Closing the bathroom door may seem insignificant, but it is one step closer to restoring our identity and normalcy amid inherently chaotic circumstances.
Going forward, I try to apply this lesson in my own life. At various stages of our lives, we all come across experiences that can make us feel helpless or lost. Sometimes, our jobs or societal challenges can make us feel like cogs in a machine, our frantic to-dos and responsibilities pulling us in many directions.
For a long time, I believed that the outcome was not within our control.
But perhaps in these moments, even though the problem may be complicated, the solution does not always need to be. All we need to do is return to the most basic acts that reaffirm our principles and remind us of why we do what we do.
For me, it is returning to the interactions we, as providers, share with patients, whether it be at the bedside or over the phone. The simple act of caring is the most profound reminder of my purpose even when I may be surrounded by conflicts. When I come back to that core experience, I feel like the bathroom door is closed, and I am back in control.
For others, it may be the act of spending time with or providing for loved ones, creating something without restrictions, or simply being alone with their own thoughts.
We all have something in our lives that feels unconditionally true and restorative, even when so much else in the world may seem arbitrary or nebulous. In these times, we can regain a sense of control by returning to the basics, by remembering what brought us here in the first place.
That night at the hospital, with the simple act of closing the bathroom door, my patient instantly seemed more at peace. For a moment, it brought her back home, back to herself.
Jason Han is a cardiac surgery resident at a Philadelphia hospital.