I can’t remember the impact, but I remember the headlights. Then, the pain. The all-encompassing horrors of broken jaws, crushed facial bones and desperate attempts to breathe. I remember the metallic taste of blood mixed with gasoline. Then…the blackness. But, how could I know that darkness was permanent? How could I know that I was now blind?
I can’t remember the medics, the crike, the ambulance speeding to Barnes Hospital, but I remember my clothing being cut off. And, I remember Jennifer.
Throughout that wretched night in the ER, Jennifer held my hand and never left my side. Her presence and her words, “Marcus, I’m here…” were the only things she could have done to help…and they were exactly what I needed.
Throughout the hospitalization and recovery, rehab and 20 years of life, I knew nothing else of Jennifer. Her story is in my memoir and “I’m Here: Compassionate Communication in Patient Care.” But, beyond that night? I knew nothing. No last name, not her position in the ER. Nothing.
Two years after the trauma, as a 19 year old, I found myself in Morristown, New Jersey, training with my first Seeing Eye dog, a black lab named Dasher. Some people measure life in years. I measure life in dogs. Dasher was by my side for seven years. When he retired at age nine, I thought my heart would break. I’d lost my sight, so I thought I knew what loss was…but I was wrong.
Life goes on. We all know that. Dasher’s retirement ushered in another black lab, Carson, who was with me for another seven years. Then came Garrett; a yellow lab who, if you’ve heard me keynote since 2010, you’ll probably remember.
Soon after I picked up Garrett’s harness for the first time, we moved to New York City where I began my Narrative Medicine Master’s program at Columbia University. As I continued keynoting around the country, Garrett was by my side for countless flights, hotel rooms, hospitals and conference centers.
Then, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the facility that saved my life, invited me to speak. As always, I told the story of “I’m Here” and Jennifer. Afterward, a member of the patient experience team approached and said words I’ll never forget: “Marcus, we have a surprise for you… we found Jennifer.”
Shock. Disbelief. Confusion. I was nothing short of a blubbering mess as I, for the first time in 20 years, held her hands again. Finally, I got to say thank you.
Weeks later, Jenny and I were interviewed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The journalist asked lots of questions, including, “How long have you had Garrett? How long do Seeing Eye dogs work? Where will Garrett go when he retires?”
Seeing Eye dogs work, on average, seven to nine years. Provided Garrett stayed healthy, we would be together around four more years.
“Will you keep Garrett when he retires?” she asked.
“No, I’ll then get another dog and need to focus all my bonding on the new pup. That’s not fair to Garrett, so I’ll find someone who wants to adopt him.”
Jenny practically jumped out of her seat declaring, “I want him!”
“Absolutely, I would love to have him!”
“Done,” I said. “I can’t imagine better hands.”
Last December. I laid on the floor of a hotel room, thanked Garrett over and over for being mine, for keeping me safe and for his unconditional love. Tears fell onto his velvet ears. Then, a knock at the door.
I hugged Jenny, fell to my knees and held Garrett one last time.
As Garrett and Jenny walked out, all I could think of was love. Love. Compassion. Presence. That’s what I received from Jennifer on the worst night of my life…and that’s what Garrett gave throughout his working life. It is a model of what all truly excellent patient experiences are comprised.
Marcus Engel, M.S., CSP, CPXP is a Certified Speaking Professional & author whose messages provide insight and strategies for excellent patient care. As a college freshman, Marcus Engel was blinded and nearly killed after being struck by a drunk driver. Through two years of rehab, over 350 hours of reconstructive facial surgery and adaptation through a multitude of life changes, Marcus witnessed the good, the bad and the profound in patient care. Marcus and his wife, Marvelyne, are the co-founders of the I’m Here Movement, a 501(c)3, which is changing the culture of care with two simple words.
To hear more from Marcus, join us August 15th for the upcoming webinar, Presence: Compassionate Communication Through Everyday Mindfulness or September 15th for our Regional Roundtable event in Ontario.