The Words We’re Afraid to Utter

By Sue Ludwig

Those of us who work in healthcare share a bond. 

We’ve seen things most people never do. And that changes us. On our best days our shared experiences make us joyful, humble, grateful, and wise. On our worst days, they make us feel incredibly sad, disillusioned and even jaded. 

We continue to show up and do the work, sometimes with a renewed sense of purpose, sometimes with a new layer of protection from the pain, …and every day, heroic. 

There’s the known heroism of saving lives in an emergency situation – a situation more adrenaline-filled, difficult, and calmly carried out than any TV show can portray. 

And then there’s the quiet heroism of a nurse spending hours making sure a new mom feels empowered to connect with her sick baby – a little 1.5 pound premature infant that doesn’t look like any Gerber baby this mom’s ever seen. 

Or the physician who gently and clearly supports a family when it’s time to let go. 

Or the therapist who supports every little developmental milestone today, so baby Olivia may fully experience all of her tomorrows. 

The stories are endless and not often told – a kaleidoscope of the human experience. Most of us wouldn’t trade this journey and the incredible patients we’ve served for anything.  

Despite all of the ways in which healthcare workers simply rock, we also have one huge fear we find hard to even verbalize. 

Maybe it’s part of our protective layer, or maybe a result of the hierarchical culture of this industry, or even the fear of litigation that keeps us from uttering this one important, even life-saving phrase, 

“I don’t know.” 

And in second place, “I need help.” 

And a close third, “I made a mistake.” 

Somewhere along the way, we got the message that we’re supposed to be infallible. We didn’t find it in any book of policies and procedures or in any professional curriculum. And yet there it is. 

Though slowly improving, we are raised in a culture of healthcare that exalts knowledge and abhors mistakes – I mean, lives are at stake here. But what we can’t measure is the number of patients and fellow colleagues who have suffered due to our silence and unwillingness to be vulnerable.   

We are educated, trained, experienced, and trusted. But no one has all the answers. 

We grow exponentially from the verbalized mistakes of the brave among us. From someone saying, “I don’t know, do you?” And from the person who decides the situation requires more help and asks for it sooner than later. In those moments, we become our patients’ best advocates. 

Uttering those words doesn’t make us weak, incompetent, or stupid. 

It makes us better. 

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