At age 16, former UnityPoint Health – Peoria CEO Debbie Simon worked as an aide at a local nursing home, where she regularly took care of an elderly woman named Gertrude, who didn’t communicate. Simon often found Gertrude balled up in a fetal position in her room, and because Gertrude didn’t speak, Simon and her colleagues often filled the empty space with their own chatter. As teenagers, they talked about their lives, gossiped, and complained about some of the nuances that came along with taking care of people like Gertrude.
Then one day, Simon was alone in the room, when Gertrude unexpectedly asked: “Why do you hate me?”
Simon, embarrassed and stunned, fumbled around with her reply. “I didn’t think you could hear me,” she said. “I didn’t think you could talk.” Simon sat down, feeling like she might cry.
Instead, Gertrude began to share stories about her life, career and the loss of her husband, the love of her life. It turns out she used to be a school teacher, along with her late husband, and they both loved the profession. They never had any children of their own, but instead dedicated their lives to those they taught. Gertrude talked about his death, too, and the immense loneliness that followed.
When Simon’s co-workers came to the room later, she stood up and said, “Gertrude was just telling me about her life.” Simon had never seen a roomful of people look so sheepish. As young as she was, she recognized what they had all done — they had made unfair judgements about Gertrude, and spoke of her like she didn’t matter.
From that day forward, Simon saw Gertrude differently. She didn’t just take care of her anymore, she cared for her.
Simon brought her treats and comfort supplies, like a blanket, powder, etc., and now and then they would talk during their time together. Gertrude soon became a close friend.
“Gertrude taught me a great deal about life in a very short amount of time. She showed me the value of people —something that is not determined by the condition of their body. She helped me see every single patient has a story, and we are often too quick to label others,” Simon says.
“Throughout my path to become a nurse, I never lost that lesson. With a person laying in that hospital bed, there’s so much more than what meets the eye. I learned a lot about making unfair assumptions, and how we feel disconnected from people who suffer from challenging physical and/or mental illnesses.”
Simon’s experience not only shaped her career as a nurse, but also as a health care leader. Even now as a CEO, Simon still uses Gertrude’s story as a lesson for others when discussing the importance of creating a more personal patient experience.
“It’s my way of helping team members relate to patients through the common bond of humanity,” she says. “Education, training, scripting and processes are incredibly important, but we also really need to focus on elevating our ability to truly feel and show empathy and compassion.”
Once Simon opened up about her story, others shared their experiences caring for people and mistakes they made along the way too.
“I never excused my behavior,” Simon says. “But I believe sharing stories and lessons learned like this helps build a culture that truly recognizes how amazing and unique every single person we care for is.”
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