Less than two-thousand volts of electricity can kill a human being on death row. Thirteen-thousand volts didn’t kill me. I’ve had a little experience in the hospital. In September of 1997 I began what was to become five years of rebuilding my life, everything from swallowing to talking and walking to writing. I was fully engaged with a hospital in the Midwest due to a severe electrical accident I suffered while at work as a television reporter. Fourth degree burns covered 12 percent of my body and the most severe injury came to my head, burned to the skull, and right side of my face as it hit the electrified live van that was to carry the story to viewers that night.
The journey was long but not without clear lessons, among which were filled with high expectations for the medical professionals that would care for me to this very day. Many of them were positive. I had a fantastically skilled plastic surgeon who happened to be on call in the emergency room the night I was brought in and walked every step of the journey with me. I had rehabilitation "coaches” that pushed me to work as hard as I physically could to return mobility to my damaged body. I was attended by a nursing staff that understood the long length of my recovery and appreciated both the physical battle I was waging as well as the emotional toll it took on both my family and me personally. I could gush about the many wonderful medical professionals that surrounded me and helped to bring me from the throes of death to a full recovery. But one story sticks with me as sure as if it was yesterday.
Dr. X, a referred specialty surgeon at another hospital, was set to tackle one of my last surgeries after a nearly five year journey full of 28 surgeries, multiple rehabilitation stints and a tiresome regiment of pain and pills. I entered this new hospital with trepidation, unsure about allowing my care to be transferred to a medical team unfamiliar with the road I had just walked, but confident, that if my chief surgeon Dr. A. referred him, I should go and at least talk to this guy. I entered the room to have a nurse try to sift through a myriad of medical records and summarize my needs in two brief sentences rather curtly. Then the surgeon walks into the room and says, "Why are you here?” Despite the fact that I had fully expected that he knew something about my case from the endless medical records that were sitting on the desk beside me, I might have understood his busy schedule and overlooked his terse attitude. But as I explained what I was looking for from him, after 28 surgeries, to do a final surgery to my eye, he looked me dead in my good eye and said, "I don’t care what I do for you, you will never look normal again.” Those words cut through me as surely as the electricity had just five years before, and shocked me into a reality I have not yet let go of.
Medical professionals, be they surgeons, nurses, lab technicians or anesthesiologists hold the weight of their degree, often to the detriment of some basic human principals. Frankly, after the medical experience I’ve survived, I care less about the acronyms following your name and announcing your pedigree. Those are a ticket to admission. What I care more about is the content of your character, your listening and problem solving skills. How much you value the relationship you will build with me as a patient, not a statistic. And your integrity when it comes to working with me to find a solution that works for both of us. Some medical professionals have these talents, some don’t. And believe me, I’m not shy about sharing either one. If health care institutions want to grow, I believe they need to weed out those who hold their degree solely as a throne to be admired and search strategically for those truly honoring the Hippocratic oath they took.
Kimberly Arms Shirk, a former television reporter/anchor, is an active advocate for patient care as she shares her remarkable story of survival and works on authoring a book about her experience, titled "Remote Fears and Silver Linings". Currently a writer/editor at Talent Plus, the Leading Talent Assessment Partner in the Industry, she focuses efforts on helping her company select and develop talented medical professionals.