Sensitivity Training - Lessons we can only try to teach

What is sensitivity training? Why would we provide it? Some of us do it (usually specialty practices); others say who has time. This training is probably the most important training you can do for your office.

My first job ever was for a pediatrician. New moms (yikes)... I then moved onto Pediatric GI (YIKES  moms with VERY sick kids or kids that didn't make it). I left pediatrics altogether after that. I have done many others over the years- cardiology, Internal Medicine, Retina, Neurosurgery to name a few. It was during the eight years I spent in retina that I first heard the term "sensitivity training". Low vision, blindness, and hearing impaired these are some of the first diagnosis' that you think of when it comes to disabilities for sensitivity training. All you need for these training sessions are some foggy glasses, a blindfold, and some earplugs. I recommend at every staff meeting pass them around and allow everyone to get a turn at a diagnosis. It is an experience you don't soon get over.
Recently, my life changed forever. I became my mother's caregiver. She has breast cancer which has metastases to the bone and also has end stage lung disease. I now have added a whole new layer to my "sensitivity training" that I would recommend for offices. That is for the caregiver.
I never fully understood the term before. To be quiet truthful, I can remember years ago being asked what "caregiver" meant. I am so ashamed to admit that my response was "legally- nothing". I considered caregivers to be some of the most difficult calls to gets sometimes. They were short-tempered; they didn't seem to know what was going on, they were demanding, they had no patience..... They were caregivers.

I know now and wish I had understood in my youth that these are the souls that are functioning on precious few hours of sleep. They are always on the alert to the slightest peep from their loved ones. They may have nobody to relieve them or to help them cope. They have to take care of their already busy lives and now have the added responsibility of trying to remember if someone else has brushed their teeth, combed their hair, or changed their clothing. Their loved ones often do not say anything for fear of being a burden. The advice comes from all sides, often contradicting the previous advice from just yesterday. I have had 20 years experience in multi-specialties and a forty-five hour medical terminology course under my belt and cannot begin to imagine how some of them that have never been exposed to it can do it. The lack of socialization, being separated from their own homes and loved ones, the physical and emotional drain all contribute to the transformation. Home health agencies and Hospice are great but they still don't give the caregiver the freedom to do errands, shop, or just escape. There are respite programs that assist with an hour here and there for this, but when you do have those outings you are rushing sometimes to do a weeks worth of errands within and hour and constantly worrying about what is happening at home. I equate this to the game show Supermarket Sweep with no great prize at the end. Caregivers also have to bear witness to some of the worst suffering. They are helpless while their loved ones suffer and all they can do is hold a hand, brush a wisp of hair from the eye, and say "I love you".

Don't get me wrong, I would not have undone one minute I spent caring for my mother..and believe it or not we had some great times too.  I read an article that referred to this time as "the bonus time with Mom" which I thought summed it up. It talked about being "The Designated Daughter". This term refers to the sibling that is at a stage in life that it is more convenient for him/her to step into that role. I told my mother repeatedly how very glad I am to have been the designated one. I love the things I learned about her while I stayed her. I cherish those memories. She is a strong person and a great mother and grandmother. My mother even now worries about us and felt the need to come up with a plan to give us closure because she does not want a service. She chose each one of the grandchildren for a special "project" toward the party we will have. My oldest daughter wrote her eulogy, each grandchild drew pictures of angels to decorate the backyard (they now adorn the wall next to her), and each of us will scatter a small amount of ashes and recite a written script. We will then all have the biggest and best party ever here at Grammy's house to celebrate her going with the angels. I can't think of a more fitting way to end my time as her student angel. I consider the time I have spent caring for my mother to be my angel externship, taught by the best angel that God will ever know. I have learned valuable lessons that will help me look out for the family after my mother has passed.

This is what caregivers are for. This is what caregivers do. This is the purpose they serve. I know that there is no way to train or prepare for this role, you simply do and be. There is no right or wrong; there is no shame.  There are lessons, there are triumphs, but mostly there is love. That what my answer will be forever more when someone asks me what is a caregiver.... LOVE.  They are the emotion in healthcare. Emotion cannot be taught in sensitivity training, but perhaps we can train to recognize it. 

I was blessed with loving family members, great friends, and thru this journey have gained even more great friends. Now more than ever I will be on the lookout for caregivers and can only hope that I can someday return the love that was shown to me.

Dedicated to my wonderful mother, Barbara Maddigan, whom taught me EVERYTHING including how to care. I would also like to give a special thanks to all my family, friends, clients, business associates and readers whom have helped me thru this difficult time.

Merrilee Severino, Notary, CPC, CMM
MS Physician Practice Management and Revenue Consultant