The Patient Experience: Through My Sister’s Eyes

Friday, February 3, 2017
By Kathleen McDonald I Contrast Creative


This is a blog written by a patient's sister and caregiver about her experience at Duke Eye Center. 

Everyone has their gifts. Mine are few. I can extract stains out of whites. I make a perfectly seasoned lasagna once a year for Christmas. And I can tell a story. In fact, I have built my entire career on storytelling, first as a broadcast journalist and for many years now as a public relations professional. The stories I tell share a commonality—what we at Contrast Creative refer to as "head to heart storytelling."

They are stories that are strategically and thoughtfully created to remind viewers, usually healthcare employees, how the work they do every day and the way they deliver it can transform the life of a patient and their loved ones. Our purposeful quest is to enhance employee engagement, while positively impacting the patient experience.

Surprisingly, providing the best possible patient experience doesn’t require a mariachi band riding unicycles while serving a five-course candlelit meal. It’s both splendid and sublime that something as simple as a smile gifted from one person to another still has the power to alleviate fear and offer a bit of reassurance even in the darkest hour.

I have witnessed it time and time again in stories we’ve produced for Duke University Hospital and Duke Raleigh Hospital’s annual All Staff Events.  These stories that we’ve titled “Miracle Man,” “Wonder Woman Walking” and “The Vision to See” for example are powerful representations of the skill and expertise Duke Health employees possess but, more importantly, represent the beauty of uncommon kindness delivered across seeming divides.

Until now these stories, though told by me and the Contrast Creative team, were not my own. They belonged to other people…other patients…other families. And then the day came when my sister Maggie, who is a vibrant 47-year-old with a developmental disability, became the patient, and I stood beside her as her sister.

Due to our aging parent’s health conditions, Maggie moved in with me and my family in July of 2016. We recognized fairly quickly that even with glasses she could not read the directions on the back of a microwave meal or see the text messages on the iPhone she cherishes. Always an avid puzzler, she struggled to fit the tiny pieces together. One trip to Dr. Julia Pridgen, our trusted family optometrist and then another to the Duke Eye Center told us all we needed to know. Maggie had dense cataracts that rendered her completely blind in her right eye and legally blind with 22/50 vision in her left eye. She would need surgery immediately to restore her vision.  Would it be possible?  We hoped.

Finding the Perfect Team

Somehow through the hand of fate, we were connected with Dr. Gargi Vora, a Duke ophthalmologist with degrees and training from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and MIT. She is, as someone described to Maggie and me early on, “a rock star!”

Given Maggie’s condition, a surgical rock star like Dr. Vora is what we needed. But she was not alone.  She arrived with a strong, smart and capable team.  Early on, we met Dr. Narae Ko who radiated a superior sensitivity and kindness that put my sister’s worries to rest.

On the day of her first surgery in November of 2016, Maggie was in near panic in the Perioperative surgical area. The team came in and introduced themselves to her one-by-one. Each team member smiled and patiently answered Maggie’s pointed questions, mostly related to their tastes in music. And they all listened intently as my sister regaled them with her love of boy bands and Shaun Cassidy. Soon Maggie got it into her head that she wanted all women for her surgery. So the Duke Eye team rearranged the OR staff who had already been assigned to her case and replaced men with women. This gesture brought Maggie enormous comfort, and it gave her the woman power she asked for. [Sorry, guys!]

The first surgery took double the usual amount of time. I sat alone in the Duke Eye Center’s waiting area in a silent panic until I spotted our ophthalmology rock star come around the corner wearing her blue scrubs and a confident smile. While my sister’s cataract was like “a rock” and difficult to dislodge, Dr. Vora and the all women team had done it. Blind be gone. Maggie could see out of her right eye again!

A Sight to Behold

By January 2017, with 20/40 vision now in Maggie’s left eye, it was time to tackle the right. This time Maggie insisted on bringing one of the four bears that she sleeps with every night. With “Cuddles” tucked close to her heart, Maggie braced for another surgical go around. And once again, the team, including some particularly wonderful nurses, met my sister in the place she lived. Soon Cuddles had his own patient wrist band to match the one worn by Maggie. And when it was time to wheel her back to the OR, Cuddles went with her.

The second surgery went smoother and quicker. And the scene replayed with Dr. Vora sharing the excellent news–the surgery was a success! She took me to see my sister in the post-operative area and to my delighted surprise next to Maggie was Cuddles with a matching eye patch. By luck of the draw, both were being taken care of by the same bright and reassuring nurse Morgan Maddox who cared for Maggie after her first surgery.

It is a few weeks past her second surgery, and we are looking at a miracle.  Maggie has 20/40 vision in her right eye and 20/25 in her left eye.  Considering where she started, the transformation is profound.  She was blind, and now she can see clearly.  No glasses or readers required.

As Maggie’s sister and guardian, I saw clearly all along.  From the helpful parking valets, to the gracious team at the Corneal Ophthalmology check-in desk, to the knowledgeable woman who scheduled Maggie’s surgeries, to the compassionate pre-op and post-op team members and even to the lovely barista at the Duke Eye Center’s coffee counter who encouraged me as I waited for word on my sister’s outcome, I wish to say thank you.  Thank YOU for being such an integral part of my family’s healthcare story and providing us such an exceptional patient experience.

Every seemingly small moment—each incandescent smile, the endorphin lifting laughs, and your willingness to treat my sister respectfully as a human being with value—mattered.  And as we go on from here and Maggie’s level of independence rises due to her improved eyesight, our view of you is vivid, crisp and clear.  We see you.  20/20.




Read this on the Contrast Creative blog