In One Ear And Into Another. Maybe.

You, a hospital patient, are meeting me for the first time. A sound-proof curtain divides the room between you and your roommate. Wait a second. Sound-proof curtain? That’s my bit of compassionate science fiction for the moment. If that kind of curtain existed, probably the percentage of patients who shared their true feelings and concerns with chaplains and others would soar. Even with total privacy, a patient who divulges their innermost thoughts to me is taking a gamble. Will I be insensitive to her making herself more vulnerable through such sharing? Will I fail to acknowledge her pain because I am distracted, incompetent or tired? Will she have wasted precious energy in our exchange? Or will the gamble be worth it as I validate what she is saying? So much of my verbal and nonverbal communication is about encouraging the patient to take that risk.

The hear-through curtain is one of those variables that make the gamble more risky. The roommate might be indifferent or asleep or wrapped up in convoluted problems of her own, but then again she might be eavesdropping. She might not be as friendly to you in the future. Or maybe what she overhears might disturb her. Thus sick people have the burden of this social calculus as well as the disease itself.

Assuming you cannot leave the room just then to come talk with me in a more private place, my action to create a space just for you and me may seem nothing more than some mystical idea in my head only. But this is what I do: besides keeping my voice down and sitting very close to you, I intensely focus just on you as if there was nobody and nothing else that could siphon off any of my attention away from you. I hope that by not glancing around the room, least of all at that spurious “privacy-granting” curtain, that my serious tone signals to your roommate that our conversation is none of her business. I hope my focus gives off the signal to anyone who happens by from the hallway that they are not to consider themselves included. I like to think I am carving out a private space for us, or at least that you sense my intent to do so.

If we are patients, may we come across the kind of person we sense it is worth the gamble to vent to. If we are caregivers, may we find ourselves ready to receive and confirm the patient’s experience, and to clear away or mitigate barriers to such reception.