How Playing Cards Saved a Life

In October 2010, my husband Amal, an orthopedic surgeon, and I were in the middle of rounds at our local hospital when we received the kind of telephone call everyone dreads. An elderly man had just arrived at a Florida trauma center via helicopter after having been in a freak golf cart accident. After confirming the man as my 80-year old father-in-law, we learned he’d suffered multiple head injuries, including a fractured skull. His injuries were life-threatening.

We immediately left our home in North Carolina and traveled to the center, praying the whole time that we’d arrive in time. The rest of our family, located all over the United States, did the same. Since most of us work in the medical field we knew the prognosis wasn’t good. After being briefed on-site by the trauma team, together we worked out a visitation schedule to ensure that my comatose father-in-law and his frightened wife would never be alone.

Seeing my father-in-law in a diminished state and immobile broke our hearts. He so loved to keep busy with his favorite pastimes, which included playing golf, cards, and the stock market. He looked smaller than usual as he lay there fighting for his life. Dad was situated in a semi-private room. As bad as his injuries were, his roommate was actually in worse condition. Machines pumped and surged to keep him alive.

Days blurred into nights. During our visit shifts, my husband and I sat in near silence with Dad. One day I excused myself and left the room. Waiting felt excruciating. Pulling on my faith, I knew deep inside that how we presented ourselves in that room would make a difference. So I went downstairs to the hospital gift shop in search of a deck of cards. My thought process, at the time, was to surround Dad with sounds and positivity using something he loved. Since swinging a golf club in a hospital is generally frowned upon, playing cards seemed a good alternative! Amal and I played cards on the bedside table. On the sixth day, as we shuffled and fluffed the cards during the course of our play, we noticed Dad becoming more alert. Tears of gratitude welled in our eyes.
A few hours that same day, Dad’s stockbroker came by to visit. As he talked to us, Dad’s eye’s fluttered open. We laughed in joy and amazement at his first words, ”How are my accounts doing today?”

We continued our daily visits, playing cards whenever we were in his hospital room. Before long, Dad participated by pointing at which card I ought to discard. He even noticed if I incorrectly added up the score. He was on his way to recovery!

Meanwhile, the patient in the other bed lay alone. The beeping of the equipment told us he was living but there was no other evidence. Nurses came in to change bags or adjust dosages. Doctors would arrive and silently examine him, check on the machines, and leave. No one spoke a word to him. We never even learned the name of this man who was fighting for his life. He died alone in a busy hospital.

In stark contrast, my father-in-law lived, despite the fact that he ought to not have survived the horrifying injuries he sustained. What made the difference? I believe in that there is healing in a prescription that cannot be written down nor filled at any pharmacy. That medicine is called compassion.

My father-in-law is also proof that those who are ill can be aware of their surroundings. Here’s how we know: after having spent long days and nights at the hospital, the staff encouraged us to get some rest. They didn’t want us to fall ill while we cared for our loved one. “Your dad will be fine,” they said. We had to remind ourselves that we weren’t the staff on duty but rather family — quite uncomfortably our roles were reversed. So we all packed up and headed to our hotel, planning to begin our vigil again in the morning.

We hadn’t even arrived at our hotel when a frantic call came through: Dad had taken a sudden turn for the worse. We rushed back to be by his side, caressing his arms and encouraging him in soft, loving voices. To our surprise, Dad visibly relaxed. His vital signs became normal. Even in a coma, he was aware on some level of our presence.

Reflecting on this experience and the stark difference between how Dad and his roommate were treated and the outcomes each had brought to mind how I’ve treated patients over the course of my 20-year career. Before this experience I’d sometimes rushed through patients’ visits. Dad’s near death brought into focus how much compassionate care makes a difference — for all our patients.
That’s part of why I feel so passionate about bringing care back into health care. When medical teams feel rushed, they don’t have the freedom or time to provide compassionate care. Oftentimes, they feel less engaged, unwilling to go the extra mile.

The outcomes from this numbers game are:

  • Low patient satisfaction
  • Hospital readmissions
  • Patient’s dying alone
  • Medical staff burnout
  • High employee turnover

We were lucky to have a highly engaged medical team — some of which included our family — working with my father-in-law. His roommate wasn’t as fortunate. Beginning today, keep in mind that no one ever died from an overdose of compassion. How can you share abundant compassion today? We’d love to hear your story in the comment area below.

For more details on my story and how I’m on a mission to bring compassion and care back into the medical arena, download my free book, “The Quadruple Aim Solution.”