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CIO Unplugged 11/13/13

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Please

As a new CIO, I spent the first five years volunteering after hours for our health system. They assigned me to the greatest volunteer opportunity available. Each Wednesday afternoon, I went room to room delivering $10 gift shop vouchers to all the winners of our closed circuit TV bingo game. Bingo was the highlight of the week for hundreds of patients and their families. The game normally finished around 4 p.m. I’d pick up the certificates at  5 p.m. and hand-deliver them to the winners.

While striving to take our IT shop from bad to good, I was not always Mr. Popular with my customers. Thus, volunteering became the highlight of my week. It got me out of the office and into our hospitals. Everyone wanted to see me. Everyone welcomed me. Wednesday evenings became a salubrious respite from the work grind I faced the rest of the week.

Observing joy in the recipients’ faces brought my heart pleasure. Think about it. These citizens were stuck in a hospital. Receiving a voucher for a $10 credit at the gift shop meant everything. And their responses had an impact on me. I stopped taking life for granted and started embracing the simple things.

Volunteering routinely also broke my heart, especially those dreaded deliveries to the fifth floor of our children’s hospital. As I scrubbed in before entering the floor, I took twice as long to wash in an attempt to delay the inevitable. I was about come face-to-face with kids the same age as mine, except these children were dying.

I’d knock gently on the door and they would be looking right at me. Expectant. Picturing my own two children in their situation, I’d swallow hard and muster up a smile. But then the joy in these young patients’ faces made the grief worthwhile. Before leaving the floor, I’d stop in the restroom and let my smile fade to a cry.

I learned the value of listening. When I delivered vouchers to the elderly, they always wanted to chat. They cared more about having company and far less about the vouchers. Oh, the loneliness I witnessed! As much as I wanted to hurry the interaction and get on to the next winner, I envisioned my own parents and thought how I would love for someone to spend time with them if I could not be there.

I met many interesting characters. The love I saw between seasoned married couples encouraged me in my marriage. I recall one man holding the hand of his sickly wife. The lines in their faces proved a beautiful testimony of a life well lived and a true commitment through health and sickness.

I’ll never forget the mom who met me in the pediatric ICU waiting room. Before I could reach her child’s room, she said, “Can I use the voucher in the cafeteria?” Although the vouchers were strictly for the gift shop, I took her down there to see what we could negotiate. She went to the grill and asked for a grilled cheese sandwich. “We don’t serve grilled cheese sandwiches,” the cook said. The exasperated mother all but begged. “My daughter just woke up from months in a coma, and her first words were, ‘Mommy I’m hungry, I want a grilled cheese sandwich.’” Tissue, please. The cook made the off-menu grilled cheese sandwich while the woman wept.

Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you — often with a shudder — that I’m a Type A personality. My wife tells me I’m an extremist, all or nothing. I am wired to compete and win. I can’t climb just any mountain, I have to summit the highest peaks, all of them. Army combat training taught me to kill with my hands, and my kids say when I’m overly focused on a project, I look ticked off at the world (I’m not really, and I’m working on smiling more). But volunteering became my counterbalance. Interacting with the sick, feeble, and dying helped shave the edge off my hardcore design.

What keeps you balanced? When you see a bed of roses, do you stop to enjoy their scent? Or does just the thought of pausing to take in the “life” happening around you ruffle your nerves?

I miss bingo. I miss weekly interactions with patients. The memories still stick with me. The emotions still live vividly. And I’m ready to jump back in and refresh the experience.

Grilled cheese, anyone?

Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.