In a hospital, a sincere "thank you" is heard far more frequently from those who are in need and less often from those who are in charge.
I receive thanks from my patients, junior residents, and students all the time, even when I have done little to deserve them.
"Thank you for replying to my text message," or "Thank you for letting me go to the bathroom," are the most recent, unintentionally comical, examples that come to mind.
It is extraordinarily difficult to earn these medallions from superiors. I remember being a medical student and having to "pre-round" on patients, which meant that I had to arrive at 4 a.m. to ensure the team would have all of the vital information prepared for it. At the end of rounds, the chief resident would simply nod and say, "OK, now that we're done, you'll be going to this OR today." Then, when it was finally time to go home after assisting in an operation for many hours without any food or water, he would just say, "Good work, tomorrow we're starting at the same time. Any questions?"
The implicit message was that fulfilling your job requirements is not worthy of special thanks.
Yet at the pace we were expected to keep, it would be nearly impossible to exceed the high expectations set for us.
My rotation at suburban Holy Redeemer Hospital posed new challenges, as I was moving from an academic medical center to a community hospital, a setting where I'd never before worked.
On my first day in the OR at Holy Redeemer, I was assigned to an attending surgeon with a reputation for being efficient and fast. These are excellent traits for patient care but can be intimidating from the perspective of a trainee.
At every step, I lagged and needed direction. As we put down the tools at the end of the case, I was certain that I had made a terrible impression and that he would request a more experienced hand next time.
To my surprise, the surgeon looked up and said sincerely, "Thank you for your help. You did a very nice job."
Then he individually thanked everyone else in the room, from the anesthesiologist to the circulating nurse.
I thought I had not done well enough to deserve his thanks. But over the next six months, and more than 100 operations with the same surgeon, I learned to see "thank you" in a new light.
Those words aren't mere praise. Said sincerely, they validate another human being for service and hard work. These are sacred values in and of themselves, without any precondition or correlation to output.
Being thanked after each surgery did not make any of us complacent. Instead, we always strived to be at our best in his OR His words were transformative. Because he reminded us that we were valued, we valued the importance of helping patients through difficult operations. Because he elevated us, we sought to elevate our patients.
More than any technical lesson, I take this with me as I transition to my next rotation. A few words, a humanizing act made as routine as saying hello, can be one of the most powerful tools in any OR, or really, in any personal encounter.
As I continue in my training, as I aspire to lead surgical teams, I intend to remind those around me daily — including my trainees — that who they are and what they do – even if they're struggling — matter.
Jason Han, M.D., is a resident in cardiothoracic surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed in this article do not represent those of the University of Pennsylvania Health System or the Perelman School of Medicine.