Thursday, October 28, 2010

Write Your Thank-You Notes

I’m writing something for the new NICU website and I’m stuck, so I thought I’d use this forum to muse.

The purpose of the new NICU website is to have loads of resources for parents. I have been very vocal in support of a “How to Take Care of Yourself” section, and it’s now one of eight main sections on the site. Since it was my suggestion, it falls to me to write a rough draft of what I think should be on it.

It’s an interesting exercise in offering tips without preaching. I’d like to tell parents that it’s very important to thank every nurse they see, everyday, but of course, I can’t. Or if I can, it must be said verrrrry diplomatically.

I was going to spend this post talking about the illusion folks have about causality. I call it Domino Causation: one event causes another to happen. This false illusion leads to the false assumption that big actions make big results and therefore big actions are more worthwhile. Big actions are like islands. They carry no momentum. Little actions are ripples. I want to call them “seedlings of tidal waves” (how’s that for mixing metaphors).

Going back to the gratitude attitude. On the third day of our NICU stay, total strangers were telling me how great my Aunt Rita was. Now I knew this already, but I didn’t know how they knew it, too. It turns out that Aunt Rita (everyone needs an Aunt Rita, by the way) had sent the nurses a huge edible fruit arrangement and note thanking them for the care they were providing to her nephews.*

*It was gone within about a half an hour. Except for the kale. Apparently even healthcare providers won’t eat kale. Even in Berkeley.

I was floored. “You can do that?” I thought, “Send nurses thank-yous? But isn’t this just their job?”**

**Something else you can do that Aunt Rita taught us: send a birth announcement to the President. I did this and got a hand-addressed card from the White House

This little gesture changed the tone of our stay at the NICU. For one, it meant that everyone knew us right away. They knew of us—25 week old twins aren’t really the norm in the NICU, and Rita’s gift helped match our faces to the twins’ isolettes. It also gave the nurses (right or wrong) a first impression of us: we were the kind of family that was happy and grateful and appreciative. Which meant that we had to act happy and grateful and appreciative. There were times when I wanted to be snippy and dismissive, and truthfully, the nurses expect the parents to be snippy and dismissive. But since the nurses all knew us and smiled at us and called us by name and expected us to treat them like humans, it made me be a nicer person. It’s hard to be a bitch to someone who’s unguarded and smiling at you. So then they were nicer to us, which made us that much more grateful and appreciative that such nice people were giving our boys such expert care. After all, it was their work that kept our boys alive. And that made us happy.

(I think we were also extra nice because Rita’s gift became a reflection of us, even though we didn’t give it and so by that token, we wanted our behavior to be a reflection of her, since the nurses would never meet her).

Being happy helped us relax while we there. Because the nurses felt compelled to thank us for Rita’s Thank You, we learned their names and faces and backstories. Knowing all the nurses by name helped us acclimate faster. Being happy made us seem more approachable. Nurses were more inclined to introduce us to new, scared families because we seemed happy, we were approachable, and the nurses knew who we were. Meeting other families helped put our minds at ease in small ways, gave us new NICU friends and contacts. Which made us more relaxed, more approachable, more inclined to introduce ourselves to new families, all of which made us more grateful to the nurses.

Rita’s gift also setting a giving precedent; we had to keep thanking the NICU staff. We gave them fudge (well, to be fair, Matt’s dad bought the fudge; we just handed it out). We wrote notes. Matt baked batches and batches of chocolate chip cookies. After the twins went home we sent birth announcements to each of our main nurses (ten of them) and attending doctor and respiratory therapist and lactation consultant and social worker.

I’m confident that we would have gotten the same great care regardless of our gratitude attitude, but it was our attitude that helped us make NICU life a rewarding experience.

© 2010 Janine Kovac

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