Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about patients’ hair. This isn’t a topic that’s usually high on the trauma surgeon’s radar. Honestly, we only think about hair if it’s getting in our way, which is how we are about a lot of things.
My recent hair preoccupation began when I asked one of my partners about a patient of hers, a woman who’d required several operations for a bowel blockage.
The patient had been pretty sick when she came to our hospital. After surgery she’d spent days and days in the ICU. She’d been on the ventilator, sedated and unable to talk. She’d needed blood transfusions, intravenous antibiotics ,and medications to keep her blood pressure up. In truth, she could have died.
She didn’t die, though. Instead, she stabilized. Eventually, she left the ICU and moved to a regular floor.
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After she’d been on the ward for a couple of days, I asked my partner how she was doing.
“She’s good,” my partner smiled. “She got her hair washed yesterday.”
“Oh, wow,” I nodded. The last time I’d seen her, she’d been unconscious. Now I pictured the patient sitting up in bed, scrubbed and glowing with shiny hair and real pajamas and maybe even a magazine. “That’s great,” I said.
As I thought about the conversation later, I realized that what was great was not only that the patient was better. What was also great was that her improvement could be communicated in a single sentence – a sentence about hair-washing.
Many people and events are contained within that short but evocative sentence. There is the patient at her sickest – unconscious, an amalgam of malfunctioning organs. There are her doctors and nurses working furiously to keep her alive. Then there’s the recovering version of the patient – a woman with fears and feelings and, of course, with hair. And, then we have the nurse or nurse’s aide who has managed to cram hair-washing into a busy day on a hospital floor.
If you’ve been to a hospital recently, you know that every minute of every day there is something for the staff to do. Mostly, those “to do’s” are simply medical care – medications that need to be dispensed, wounds that need to be dressed, blood to be drawn, patients to be fed, or walked, or helped to the bathroom.
Even on the regular floor, where people are improving, hair-washing has to wait in line behind all the other tasks.
So when my partner’s patient got her hair washed, it was because someone looked at her and saw a fellow human with knotted, greasy hair. And that empathetic and generous caregiver said “Hey, let’s wash your hair today.” And then she took a scarce free moment and did it.
I wasn’t there when the hair-washing took place. I can imagine it, though. I can see her washing the patient’s hair and then combing it out. I can see her hunting around for a ribbon or a rubber band or a scrunchee so that she could pull the patient’s hair back out of her face. And I can see the hair-washer gabbing away with the patient, asking about her family, her job, her hometown, or maybe even about her hometown beauty salon.
There’s a lot of times when we’re caring for patients without even seeing them. We’re at a computer, looking at their labs and X-rays, or we’re reviewing their plan for discharge. The beauty of hair-washing is it’s a moment of slowing down, a moment of hands-on care when someone is making the patient better by simply touching them and talking to them. It’s amazing, really, and a little bit underrated.
The week after the conversation with my partner, my mother was admitted for emphysema. When I brought her in, she was gasping. It was hard for me to look at her. But she got better with steroids and breathing treatments and antibiotics.
She was grateful for all this medical care. She thanked all the nurses and doctors every time they went into her room. It was days, though, before she told me that she really felt better, and I was thrilled when she said it.
“What’s better?” I asked eagerly.
Her answer wasn’t about breathing.
“I got my hair washed,” Mom said.